In 1997, a little more than a year after Muhammad Ali, visibly shaking due to his Parkinson's Syndrome, lit the Olympics flame in Atlanta, creating perhaps the most emotionally satisfying moment in Olympics history, I was asked to join a small group accompanying Ali on a humanitarian mission to bring food and medical supplies to a number of orphanages in Morocco. In the VIP area at Kennedy's International Arrivals Terminal, with Ali silently greeting those being introduced to him, his handshake soft, a slight head bob of acknowledgment, waiting like the rest of us to board our Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca, the trip's organizer, Yank Barry, who had been with Ali in Atlanta, told me that President Clinton had tears in his eyes as he greeted and hugged the Champ following the evening's Opening Ceremonies. As the two men embraced, Ali whispered in the president's ear, "Hi Bill. How's Hil?"
Such signature Ali playfulness was not immediately apparent in the airline terminal in 1997, even though I knew that somewhere in the pockets of his olive green sports coat there would surely be a deck of playing cards and an assortment of brightly colored silk handkerchiefs, props to be used whenever and wherever he was struck by the thought to perform some magic for anyone in his immediate vicinity.
The tricks would come later, but now it was time to make our way to the departure gate. Under normal circumstances, the walk from the VIP area to the gate might have taken a couple of minutes. But these were not normal circumstances. This was Muhammad Ali, walking through a crowded airline terminal four years before security measures would limit airline walkways to only arriving and departing passengers.
It took us forty-five minutes to traverse the short distance to the gate. Our pace was slowed not by Ali's halting gait, but rather by the sheer number of people who wanted only to touch him, and maybe obtain his autograph and have their pictures taken with him.
Celebrities get this all the time. Fans, the paparazzi, and just dumbstruck individuals caught in the backdraft of fame often force well-known people to make a hasty decision: either cut and run, or maybe make a few people happy, and then cut and run. But no person of fame was ever like Muhammad Ali. Not the Beatles, or Elvis, or Michael Jackson, or any sitting president. Ali was by far the most famous person on the planet, and what he did during those forty-five minutes was to behave in a way unlike any celebrity I'd ever been around. Ali signed every piece of paper thrust his way and posed patiently for absolutely every last person who wanted to have their picture taken with him. Ali knew his role so well that he managed to look away from the camera right before the flash went off, protecting eyes that had told his brain thousands of times when to dodge the next punch. The skill, which had served him so well in the ring, was still alive despite his being held captive by a relentlessly advancing disease that Ali knew would one day take him down for the count.
Over the next few days, we visited orphanages in both Casablanca and Morocco's capital city of Rabat. And the scene at each orphanage was always the same: an overwhelming number of boys compared to girls, because the girls tend to be adopted quickly, mostly so they can provide help in their new homes. So there were all these boys, from toddlers up to age nine, lined up to meet Ali, and I wondered whether they even knew who Ali was. While I'm sure those in charge told them of the great man's many accomplishments, when you're a kid, a lot of information goes in one ear and out the other.
So there was Ali, this big man with a big face, shuffling over to each child, his shaking hands outstretched, bending down to give them hugs and kisses. Let's face it, he was a stranger to the children, and yet not one out of hundreds showed any fear, or shied away, or cried. Not one. I realized then this was a man with an essence so extraordinarily loving and safe he might as well have been the Pied Piper.
Later on one of those nights, Ali and the rest of us were hosted for a dinner in Rabat at the palace of King Hassan II, Morocco's ruling monarch until his death two years later. Ali's magic tricks came out at the palace, and like the orphaned children, the adults couldn't get enough of him either.
Back at the airport in Casablanca, awaiting our return flight to New York, I sat down next to Ali and told him that I had watched him for nearly five days and never once saw him say no to anyone - autographs, photos, hugs, kisses, you name it. And he complied with each one's wish. Not one person he encountered was left wanting.
"You said yes to everything," I said. "Why?"
He pointed up to the ceiling, but I knew what he meant.
"Heaven," I said.
He nodded yes.
I asked him if he equated doing good deeds with getting into heaven.
He nodded yes again.
I said, "Do you mean to tell me, after all you've done, after what you've meant to others, that there's even the remotest possibility you won't get into heaven?"
"You can't be too sure," he said, smiling, his eyes sparkling like in the old days.
Well, I can't claim to know whether heaven exists, but if it does, he's in it, I'm sure of it.