I’m dusting off this story because I’ve been reading Muhammad Ali quotes this morning and watching video of his brilliant and ego ladden fights. He never kept his hands up but man he could move his head. How did anyone ever hit him?
I have loved Ali since I was six or seven years years old because he helped me. It was probably 1967 or 68. I was a skinny , big earred little girl, my brother, Granger, my mom and I flew to Boston to visit my other brother, Jack, at prep school.
Granger was a gorgeous, golden haired, 19 year old and he had a full leg cast on for this trip. Two weeks earlier he’d totalled another family car. He was on crutches and grumpy all the time.
My mom left Granger and me at the enormous Boston airport terminal with the luggage while she returned the rental car. It was Spring time. Back then, in the late 60’s, little girls got very dressed up to fly in an airplane. That day, I wore a a baby blue dress, white tights and white dress shoes. I was miserable and to make things worse I had to drag all the luggage and keep up with Granger who moved like a ninja on crutches.
Suddenly Granger stopped and said, “Do you know who that is? Look down there!”
I didn’t know or care. But Granger was really excited. “Good God, Pooh Bear, that’s Cassius Clay,” then he corrected himself. “Muhammad Ali!.” He looked at me. “The heavy weight champion of the world. Come on!” He he took off like a thoroughbred on galloping across the enormous Logan Airport and I started dragging the suitcases, trying to keep up. I stopped once and tried to figure out who he was chasing but all I could see was a great big group of dressed up black people. I readjusted my grip and trudged on. My tights were sagging and my feet hurt.
By the time I reached the group, Granger had already introduced himself. I stood behind him in awe . I had never, in my life seen so many gigantic beautiful black people, all dressed up. But in the middle there was a man, laughing and smilling. Ali was surrounded by several body guards in dark suits and they all towered in front of me like Red Woods. And their was a lady in the group. I was transfixed because I had never seen a beautiful, fancy black lady. She seemed to shine from inside, like she’d swallowed a star, she was a smiling goddess and I was speechless. Then the laughing, talking man in the middle stepped in front of me and said, “And who are you?”
I dropped the bags. “Diana Ross McDaniel, we’re from Hot Springs, Arkansas.” I extended my hand as I’d been trained to do. That’s when it happened. His hand was the size of a catchers mitt and it swallowed my hand then part of my arm. I didn’t know if my hand would ever return.
“Nice to meet you Diana Ross McDaniel, I’m Muhammad Ali.” First he made his eyes get big and round then he winked at me. I had no idea who he was but I was entranced. “Why is such a little girl carrying all those bags?”
“Granger can’t carry anything because of his crutches. He wrecked moms car…. Ali stopped me. He nodded at one of the other men then told him to take the luggage for me and carry it to the check in counter.. At that moment I didn’t know who Ali was but I loved him cause he made those men take the damn bags off my hands. My fingers still ached.
Quickly, he scribbled his name on Granger’s cast then leaned down, kissed me on the cheek winked again and said, “Kids, I’ve got to go before the press finds me but you take care of your little sister, you hear me Granger?”
Then he was gone, they were all gone and we were left in his vacuum.
Before that day I had no idea what a “heavy weight champion of the world” was but I figured it out pretty quickly. That massive man made my day so much easier and he told Granger to be nice to me so he was the champion of the world.
For years after that day, I was the little white girl who defended Ali against all critics. From Vietnam to Rope-A-Dope, Ali, the “heavy wight champion of the world,” could do no wrong in my eyes. When Daddy and I listened to Howard Cosell and watched his epic battles live on Friday nights, I would tell anyone who would listen about my friend, “Muhammad Ali”.
And I still defend him today, though his philanthropy and humanitarian dedication have made him unmatched in the world of sports. He doesn’t need my defense. But I will always think of Muhammad Ali as my friend. And someday, when we meet again, here or in heaven, I ‘ll give him a big hug and tell him I’ve been waiting to see him again.