More than a decade ago, I was driving down Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, California in a red Cadillac on loan from General Motors. I had the windows down, as it was a beautiful sunny day in L.A., and I was blasting my Syleena Johnson CD, “Chapter 2: The Voice.” I was on my way to the E! Entertainment studios to tape an episode of “E! True Hollywood Story.”
I crossed through the always-hectic intersection of Wilshire and La Cienega Blvd. and was approaching the next stop light, I could hear the horn of a black S.U.V. blowing loudly as though they needed to get my attention. Once I stopped at the light, it was just me and the S.U.V. beside me.
I turned down my music and looked to see what the passengers of the S.U.V. were trying to tell me. The window rolled down and it was Muhammad Ali. He reached over to me, handed me an autographed photo of himself, nodded his head, smiled at my amazement and waved to me as the light changed and it was time to drive off.
I sat in awe for a second at the light. (The next horn that blew was from a driver behind me telling me to go.) I thought, ‘did this really just happen to me?’ It had and the smile on my face was like that of a child at Christmas. A random encounter, but an unforgettable one indeed.
As I continued to drive towards the E! studios, I could see Ali continue to surprise other passengers by extending the same gesture to them. Like me, you could see the look of astonishment on their face that the boxing icon, a living legend had surprised them with a random act of kindness.
Several years later, in 2008, I attended the Kentucky Derby fas part of the Grand Gala Weekend. My host, Rohena Miller, had arranged for me attend a private fundraiser at Ali’s home in Louisville, Kentucky the Saturday morning before the Derby.
While eating on the most amazing breakfast spread ever and hobnobbing with the likes of former boxing champ Lennox Lewis, one of the organizers came over to ask if we wanted to take photos with Ali. Of course I did!
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, three years after he had retired from boxing. The day of the event at his home in Louisville you could tell he had deteriorated some since my random encounter with him in Los Angeles. When I kneeled down to take the photo, I expressed my honor to be in his home and my gratitude for the photo opportunity. I also shared the impact of that experience with him in Los Angeles.
He was a kind man, a gentle man and even while battling such a debilitating disease, the man who called himself “The Greatest of All Time” still had a larger than life presence and impact on those he encountered. I’m grateful to have had two wonderful experiences with the incomparable boxing legend and civil rights champion.
On June 3, 2016, in a Phoenix, Arizona-area hospital Ali died. He had been hospitalized for respiratory complications.
The silver-tongue titan of boxing spent part of the year living in Arizona because as his current wife, Yolanda ‘Lonnie’ Williams explained to me at their home in Louisville, the dry-heat of Arizona helped him cope with Parkinson’s disease.
“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” Bob Gunnell, a family spokesman, said in a statement to the media.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, the man that would later become Muhammad Ali leaves behind a legacy that is unmatched, virtues that are life-changing and an impact that could likely never be duplicated.