Once They Were Princes: Black Muslim minister Malcolm X and Ali, before their fatal falling out.
So I hooked up with my Big Story, the one that would define and fuel my career, get me off the rewrite desk and eventually make me a columnist. But after 16 months, I was happy to get away from it. When the Times offered me a summer in Europe covering sports, I ran out to get my first passport, my first American Express card, my first Brooks Brothers suit: Today, I am The Man.
It was not that I wasn't grateful. I had been delighted by Clay's victory over Liston and his declaration the next morning that "I don't have to be what you want me to be, I'm free to be who I want," not the least because it presaged a regime change in sportswriting -- the old farts hated him, couldn't relate, didn't have the access and the chops to hang out with him in hotel rooms and mosques, to interview Malcolm X, to sit all day with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam who changed Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.'s name to Muhammad Ali ("Worthy of All Praise, Most High").
But ... I also felt worn down by the relentless hype of his promoters, the grim-faced dogma of the Black Muslims, the sly manipulations of the champ himself, who played every journalist like a different instrument in his orchestra. When the old guys who beat up on him -- like Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young and Red Smith and Arthur Daley -- came into the gym, he would pretend to be afraid of them until they swelled up like puffer fish. He treated young guys like me as if we were his stenographers. And he could be patronizing, too. Once, when I apologized for the Times' refusal to let me call him Muhammad Ali without first using Cassius Clay, he dropped an arm on my shoulder and said he understood that I was just a little brother of the power structure.
I tried to be tough and fair, but it seemed like cheerleading; whatever I wrote, I was eventually selling tickets to the next fight.
After all, here was this supposed racial hero who lectured on the righteousness of segregation ... and put down decent, brave Joe Frazier as an ugly gorilla.
Here was this sermonizer on family values ... who was bonking his brains out (but then, his leader, the Honorable Elijah, lived in a Chicago mansion attended by pregnant young "secretaries").
And worst, here was this man of peace ... who had turned his back on Malcolm, whom I came to know and respect, and Leon 4X Ameer, a former Muslim who had become my friend. Although Ali was clearly then in at least emotional thrall to the Nation of Islam, his disavowal of Malcolm, his mentor, and of Leon, Ali's bodyguard, was unconscionable and fatal for them. It seems unlikely that the Muslims would have dared murder them if Ali had not publicly made them unpersons.
So when Ali showed up in Sweden, the herring and aquavit came back up into my throat like acid. After a wonderful summer at Le Mans, at Wimbledon, fishing for salmon on the Laerdal River in Scotland, I had managed to file Ali in a corner of my mind, especially now that I was on the vacation phase of the trip, concentrating on getting my wife pregnant. And there he was in my hotel lobby. He was on an exhibition tour, which I could ignore, but he was hilariously controversial, which I could not.
It was about white women.
He said he didn't want to sleep with them.
The Swedish press was offended. Their blondes -- "flicka" was the slang word the newspapers used -- had been good enough for every other black athlete who ever showed up, including Floyd Patterson, whose face was all over Stockholm endorsing a candy bar. The Communist media was particularly incensed; it considered Ali a racist.
He tried to explain that it was about his religion, about his mission to show his brothers that black was beautiful, and his attempt to stay out of trouble. (His childhood memory of Emmett Till beaten and killed for allegedly eyeballing a white woman in Mississippi was never far from his consciousness in those days.)
But the Swedes wouldn't have it. I couldn't tell whether they were thick, whether it was part of the anti-Americanism in Europe (which was mostly focused, ironically, on the Vietnam War) or whether the Swedes really were just the biggest depressives. (There was a joke I loved at the time of a Swedish man coming home for dinner and saying, "Asparagus, sweetie? Again?" and blowing his brains out.)
When Ali spotted me in the hotel lobby, he dragged me up to his room. He seemed down. He always had recharged his psyche with the energy of crowds, but the Swedes had left his battery dead.
"Why do I catch all this hell?" he asked me, almost pleading. "I don't smoke or drink or chase bad women. I treat everybody nice."
I had no answers, but I was willing to listen, and somehow over the next couple of hours, he not only reopened the file in the back of my head but reminded me why I had been so delighted he had won the title. Once he got through his complaining and some Muslimizing (the 7-foot black men in space ships waiting to rescue believers on Judgment Day) he lapsed into the old Clay, re-enacting his mad act at the weigh-in for the Liston fight, reciting my favorite poems ("Me! Wheeeee!"), and explaining in detail about how he could play the fool but really be a wise man.
After a while, he lay back on his bed and his eyelids began to flutter, then close. "So tired, have to think of a new angle ... life is a dream, doody-boo-boo ..."
I tiptoed out, smiling. The Greatest was reeling me back in.