Ali magic on display at fundraiser
ESPN SportsZone news services

PITTSBURGH -- Muhammad Ali, after sitting silently through a fund-raising luncheon for Parkinson's disease, didn't let the afternoon end without a little showmanship back on May 18.

Ali, his movements and speech limited by the nerve disease, stopped in his tracks as he shuffled out of a news conference, then waved a purple silk scarf and made it disappear in his hand.

"Do you see it?" Ali mumbled to the small crowd, barely moving his lips. He waved his hands again, and the scarf reappeared.

Ali, 56, makes a handful of appearances a year to benefit the National Parkinson Foundation. His wife, Lonnie, does most of the speaking for him.

"It is amazing the number of people I come across on a daily basis who are being afflicted," she said. "I've been told a cure for Parkinson's is simply a function of money."

About 700 people paid $150 each to have lunch with the three-time heavyweight boxing champion and civil rights activist. A pair of Ali's gloves were auctioned for $6,200.

The foundation pays for Parkinson's research worldwide, and the University of Pittsburgh's Center of Excellence in Parkinson's Disease is among about 10 major research hot spots in the country.

Besides raising money, researchers were hoping to build support for federal legislation that earmarked $100 million for National Institutes of Health research into Parkinson's. Congress passed the bill, but an accounting dispute with the NIH may lower the actual amount allocated.

Researchers know more about Parkinson's than any other neurological disease and are making breakthroughs "on almost a daily basis," said Dr. Michael Zigmond of Pitt's Neurology Department. "I have every reason to expect that well within my lifetime we will abolish Parkinson's disease."

About 1.5 million American's suffer from Parkinson's, and the degenerative disease afflicts one out every 100 people over age 55. Sufferers fail to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine, which controls voluntary movement. The intellect is not affected.

Ali's movements are slow and shaky, but his sense of humor appears to be intact.

At one point in the May event, a man stepped in front of Ali and pretended to spar with him. Ali slowly raised his hand, pointed at his own head and twirled his finger.