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Billy, The Greatest and me

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During his 50-year career in journalism, Dick Schaap has expended millions of words -- written and spoken -- on some of the most celebrated figures of the second half of the 20th century. Finally, he decided it was time to explore the subject he knows best -- himself. In an excerpt from "Flashing Before My Eyes," the self-acknowledged master name-dropper drops two of his favorite names -- Muhammad Ali and Billy Crystal -- who also grace the cover of his recently published autobiography.

Flashing Before My Eyes
Dick Schaap helped introduce Billy Crystal to Muhammad Ali.
At the end of 1974, Muhammad Ali was SPORT magazine's Man of the Year by acclamation, and he accepted our invitation to be honored at a banquet at the Plaza Hotel in January 1975. I set about assembling a suitable dais.

I wanted a comedian. I wanted Robert Klein. His agent said he was busy. With time running out, and Klein unavailable, a woman at the William Morris Agency told me, "Take Billy."

"Billy who?" I said.

"Billy Crystal," she said.

"Billy who?" I said.

I had never heard of Billy Crystal, which put me in the majority.

"He's very funny," she said. "Trust me."

"You're an agent," I should have said. "How can I trust you?"

Instead, I said, "What does he do?"

"He does a terrific imitation of Ali," the woman said. "Ali and Howard Cosell. You'll love him."

Reluctantly, I took Crystal. I didn't have much choice. I met him for the first time two minutes before we sat down to eat. He seemed like a nice, gentle person. He said he had been working as a substitute teacher at a junior high school on Long Island. Sometimes he taught social studies, sometimes girls' gym. He sat on the dais with Neil Simon and George Plimpton, two great writers, and Melba Moore, a great singer, and Muhammad Ali, the greatest. I thought Billy was out of his league.

I was the master of ceremonies, and halfway through the program, after Simon and Plimpton spoke, and Moore sang, I said, "And now -- one of Muhammad Ali's closest friends!"

Billy Crystal stood up and moved toward the microphone, and Ali looked at me as if I were crazy. He had never seen Billy before. He had no idea who he was.

Billy promptly launched into his Ali-and-Cosell routine.

"Muhammad -- may I call you 'Mo'?"

"Sure, Howard, but don't call me Larry or Curly."

"How fast are you, Mo?"

"I'm so fast, Howard, I can turn off the lights and jump in bed and be under the covers before the room gets dark."

Ali fell out of his chair, he was laughing so hard. Billy Crystal was the hit of the evening, the star, in his first television appearance, of a syndicated program, "SPORT's Man of the Year."

Two lasting friendships began that night, one between Ali and Crystal, the other between Billy and me. None of us dreamed that someday Billy would be as huge in his field as Ali was in his. (When they posed with me for the cover of this book, the thought that was uppermost in my mind was: The magnitude of them.)

When Billy and I collaborated on "Absolutely Mahvelous," he inscribed a copy of the book to Trish and me. "I'm so glad Klein wasn't available," he wrote.

Later in 1975, I went to the Philippines for the "Thrilla in Manila," Ali-Frazier III, and in October to Boston for the equally dramatic seven-game World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds, covering both events for the newspaper, the magazine, and the network. Sleep, I've always figured, was for sissies.

The 10-day trip to Manila was fascinating, a dizzying blend of curfews, cockfights, and custom-rolled contraband joints served at formal receptions on silver platters. President Ferdinand Marcos had imposed martial law upon the city, but the international journalists covering the fight were granted dispensations to go out after midnight, to accompany Ali on his nocturnal runs. No one wanted to miss one of Ali's impromptu performances. When Joe Frazier accused him of firing a gun from the street toward Frazier's hotel balcony, Ali countered that the gun was only a toy and, besides, "I ain't gonna shoot him. I don't want anything to happen to him before I get him in the ring. I'm praying for his good health."

Ali interrupted one of his workouts to jab at reports that he had introduced a beautiful young woman named Veronica Porche to President Marcos as "my wife." Veronica had been observed at Ali's side everywhere he went in Manila. She did not look like a bodyguard.

"She ain't my wife," Ali said. "Belinda's my wife. I ain't got but one wife." He also said that his relationship with Veronica was nobody's business but his own. "You tell people not to worry about who I'm sleeping with," he said, "and I won't worry about who they're sleeping with." Several journalists took the punch.

Ali warmed to the subject. "They're always looking for something bad to say about me," he said. "Now it's lady friends. Somebody once wrote in London that five girls came into my hotel room" -- his eyes opened wide -- "and only three came out."

Two days later, at six in the morning, I was sitting in Ali's hotel suite, preparing to interview him for the "Today Show," when Belinda marched in, straight from the airport. She ignored the cameras, walked up to her husband, put her arms around him, and said, "Aren't you glad to see me?"

Ali lied like a husband.

The Alis disappeared into an adjacent bedroom for round two of their reunion, and the sounds of conflict wafted out to the living room. Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, one of boxing's royalty, was sitting with me and my camera crew and wisely suggested we adjourn to the hotel coffee shop.

After several cups, I returned to Ali's suite, saw neither blood nor scars, and conducted my interview. It took 10 minutes of uneasy conversation before Ali again became his effusive self, 12 hours before Belinda boarded a plane back to the United States, and almost two years before Veronica Porche became the third Mrs. Ali.

Dick Schaap, one of sports' most highly honored and respected journalists, serves as host of ESPN Classic's Schaap One on One. He is also host of "ESPN The Magazine's Sports Reporters" and "The Sporting Life" for ESPN Radio. His long list of accomplishments features two Sports Emmy Awards for writing "Sporting Life," (1991 and 1994) which is aired during Sunday SportsDay. He has also received three Emmy Awards for features on ABC's 20/20. In addition, Schaap has authored more than 30 books and serves as sports editor for Parade Magazine.

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