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Prophet Motive: In Chicago in 1975, Ali spread the gospel of Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhhamud.

I'd been up all night with a stomachache after interviewing Bozo Miller, the world's champion speed eater, and now I was foraging on Van Ness Street for toast and tea. I heard a car screech to the curb behind me, and someone shouted, "Get him. Don't let him get away."

I turned in time to see two big men jump out of a blue Oldsmobile. I started to run, but all those club sandwiches weighed me down. The car lurched forward and a third man, bigger than the others, leaped out and grabbed me.

"You fast and you pretty," Ali said, "but if you thought you could get away from me, you would apologize."

He tucked me into the back of the car, and it took off. I was writing the Sports of the Times column three times a week by then, and I had assigned myself to lend punditry to the fight between Jimmy Ellis, Ali's old sparring partner, and Jerry Quarry, with whom he would have a date with destiny in two years. It was all part of the desperate scramble to breathe life back into boxing, post-Ali.

Ali was in the Bay Area to drum up business for local mosques. He was on his way to speak at an anti-war rally at Civic Center Plaza.

With him were two unusually jolly Muslim officials and a Chicago booking agent who seemed morose over a free appearance before a crowd of more than 12,000. At the Plaza, we sat in the car for a long time, sniffing the marijuana smoke drifting in. Ali pretended to get high. The booking agent said, "I'll get you on right away, so you don't have to wait."

"No," Ali said, "I'll wait for my time."

One of the Muslims laughed harshly. "Muhammad Ali, you'll wait for your time? The Man is going to see you get time, time in jail."

Ali shrugged and watched several white balloons float up into a heartbreakingly blue sky. "You think they stay up there forever, just hanging up there in the sky till a plane hits them, or you think they got to come down again?"

"What do you mean?" I said, fishing for that profound metaphor from the holy child, pen poised like a fishing rod.

"Air pressure," one of the Muslims said. "Gets thinner on the outside, the balloon pops out."

"Oh, yeah," said Ali, satisfied. So much for metaphor. By the time Ali mounted the stage, the thousands sprawled on the warm concrete below had heard from draft-card burners, radical divas and a rock band, and cheered for a few naked strollers. They were in too good a mood to let Ali's 25-minute lecture bring them down. They just smiled at the sun in that sweetly dopey '60s way as he read from his giant index cards, mostly parables from the Koran as interpreted by the Honorable Elijah. When he told the crowd that if black is to be truly beautiful, it can't be diluted by white blood, several interracial couples stood up, booed and walked away.

It had been only a year since Ali refused to be drafted, and he was still feeling his way on the speaking circuit. Later on, he would entertainingly integrate boxing tales, Muslim dogma and racial rhetoric, but now he was simply boring. It was amazing how he improved during the three years of his exile from the ring. He lost millions of dollars in purses and millions more in endorsements, but he never lost his enthusiasm for whatever he was doing at the moment.

Back in the car, Ali played back his speech on a tape recorder, pausing it to make changes on the index cards. He was bringing the same methodical discipline and craft to speechmaking that he had to boxing.

"You have to modify the speech for a radical audience," the booking agent said.

"I was too strong for them," Ali said. "They couldn't take it."

Later, back at his hotel, I had what was my first and last real conversation with him. Almost all of our 40-odd years of interaction have consisted of Q-and-A or monologues (his) or permitted eavesdropping (mine). But these were just two guys whose wives were in the eighth month of pregnancy with their first child. We talked about living with swollen, expectant women, with wondering about what the kid would be like, with the wonder of it all.

Ali had a complaint. "Takes so long," he said.