My two hours with Muhammad Ali
I will never forget the day I met ‘The Greatest of All Time’
Perhaps the biggest “no-no” as a sportswriter is to get an autograph or a picture from an athlete you’re covering. But c’mon, man, it was Muhammad Ali.
It was 1999 and I was a general assignment reporter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky. I covered everything from University of Kentucky and University of Louisville football and basketball, auto racing, breaking news on a Kentucky football player’s deadly drunken driving accident, Mark McGwire’s home run record game, women’s college volleyball, minor league baseball, and more. You had to be ready to cover all news — high- or low-profile — at a moment’s notice.
For me, the most esteemed and memorable of them all arrived when I was assigned to cover Ali when he was named Kentucky’s Athlete of the Century. I’ve been blessed to cover numerous NBA Finals, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Rose Bowl, profile Earl Lloyd, the first black player in the NBA and much more. But a story on “The Greatest of All-Time”? Nothing will ever top that.
I loved Ali.
My dad, Curtis Spears, loved Ali even more.
My dad, 72, said Ali was the only boxer he ever followed. “I listened to him on the radio all the time,” he told me.
So as a surprise to my dad, I asked my sports editor Harry Bryant if it would be OK to defy the aforementioned sports “no-no” and get an autograph from Ali for dad. Without hesitation — and surely only because it was Ali — Bryant said yes.
Ali had already been named to the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985. But this was a much grander honor and occasion. Louisville’s brightest star was coming home to be named Athlete of the Century for a state not so distantly associated with racism and an ugly slavery past.
Then-New York Knicks forward Allan Houston, a Louisville native, was the early star of the event as he was in the Class of 1999 being inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. But then “The Greatest” arrived.
Fashionably late, a Parkinson’s-stricken Ali arrived with his wife, Yolanda Williams, by his side. She helped him walk. His renowned photographer, Howard Bingham, snapped away as the crowd went pin-drop silent with The Champ’s arrival. It was as if Jesus had just walked in … and then, the crowd parted like the Red Sea as Ali floated like a butterfly to his table. He reached out for a little girl who was about 3 years old or so and certainly had no clue Ali was America’s most beloved athlete. She reached back and smiled, hugging Ali as if she could sense she was meeting someone beyond special.
Ms. Lonnie spoke on her husband’s behalf during the memorable ceremony. And once it ended, a line as long as the Kentucky Derby track formed as people waited for a picture with Ali. And I wasn’t the only journalist in line either.
I got Ali’s autograph for my dad, and The Champ and I took a picture with both of us raising our boxing fists. Then-Lexington Herald Leader sports writer Chip Cosby, was the photographer.
For months I asked my boy Chip for the picture, but got nothing. For years, he claimed that he couldn’t find the film (something about it being lost in his garage, so he said).
My dad got his autograph, though.
Seventeen years have passed since that day, but I’m still holding out hope that Chip will somehow find the film in his garage of and The Champ and me. A man that was a force in the ring, for sure, but also an enduring legend and icon outside it.