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Just Say No: Ali's refusal to accept the draft changed the course of history - his, as well as boxing's.

We were sitting outside his little rented bungalow, ogling schoolgirls on their way home. On television -- although not on his television -- Senate hearings raged over the war in Vietnam. Sharp political lines were being drawn. A nation was pulling apart while I was writing down Ali's best pickup lines: "Hey, little girl in the high school sweater, you not gonna pass me by today."

I was there to do a feature story on his training for a fight with Ernie Terrell. It was February again, warm there, cold where I lived, and he was big again. In his fight the previous November in Vegas, he had torn the wings off poor Patterson, mocking him for criticizing Islam and for refusing to call him Ali. I was disgusted, but he had gotten me back on the front page.

The phone rang inside the house, and his cook came out. It was a reporter. When Ali came back, he was upset. His draft board in Louisville -- which originally had classified him unfit for service, perhaps as a gift to his white former patrons, the pillars of Louisville -- had just reclassified him 1A, ready for combat. His first response was, "Why me?"

He began to rant. After embarrassing him with a classification that implied he was too dumb or nutty for the Army, how could they suddenly reclassify him without another test? Friends and bodyguards from the Nation of Islam showed up to stoke his mounting fear and fury. He would be called up right away, they said, sent to the front lines, cracker sergeants would drop live grenades down his pants. Ali got wilder. He was heavyweight champ. Why didn't the draft board call up some poor boys? Think of how many guns and bombs his taxes paid for. It was hardly the response of a principled pacifist, I thought, but it was real. How much of the anti-war movement was principle and how much was fear of getting hurt or killed, or even of merely having your life interrupted?

Television news trucks pulled up. Interviewers sensed his anger and provoked him further.

"Do you know where Vietnam is?"

"Sure," he mumbled, but he didn't sound sure.


Ali shrugged. I would have shrugged, too. This went on for hours; it was dusk when a newcomer with a mike asked the same question for the hundredth time: "Well, what do you think about the Vietcong?"

Tired, exasperated, Ali blurted the sound bite that would help define the '60s, a headline sentence that made him simultaneously hated and beloved. He said, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong."

Everybody in the world except me led with that as if it were a statement. I heard it as a provoked response, the mindless reaction of an ignorant child who didn't yet have a grasp on his symbolic role. I didn't file a story that day. I still think about that. Was I a wise man or a fool?