Muhammad Ali was a frequent visitor to Atlanta, including in 1996 when he lit the Olympic flame during the Summer Olympic Games opening ceremony in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
In 1994, I was the sports editor of the Atlanta Daily World and one day that spring my boss – the late Portia Scott – threw me a curve on a casual Friday.
“Muhammad Ali is going to be at City Hall this afternoon,” she said. “I need you to go over there to see what’s up.”
I’m thinking I’ve got the chance to meet one of my childhood heroes and I’m not dressed for city hall since its casual Friday.
Casual Friday meant that instead of the usual blazer, tie, and slacks I was wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, and sneakers. Underdressed for the occasion, I made the half mile walk up Auburn Ave. past Underground Atlanta to City Hall. Each step seemed to take forever entering the building and the spiral staircase leading up to mayor’s office was a never ending journey.
To say the group of Black reporters who were there were unwelcoming is an understatement. They looked me up and down and snickered while trying to figure who was this guy crashing their exclusive party.
I set up shop on the other side of the room while they stood in the doorway trying to get the first word with the champ. Patience was tested as we all waited for more than an hour for his arrival which seemed like an eternity in a day where there was no social media or internet that I could use to pass the time.
When Ali finally arrived everyone converged on him. He looks across the room and we make eye contact as then Mayor Maynard Jackson – the soul of modern Atlanta – embraced him with the kind of bear hug that only historic Black men share. After their moment Ali started making his way across the room.
It was surreal. Muhammad Ali was moving towards me. I was just a young, humble, inexperienced reporter who had been ostracized because I worked at a Black Republican newspaper.
Parkinson’s had already begun to affect Ali. He moved slowly and his speech was beginning to slur noticeably but still his presence was captivating. There was warmth about his personality that eased my tension with every step he took in my direction. The closer he came to me the more I was drawn to him. It was the only time I was in awe of someone I was supposed to interview.
“What’s your name,” Ali asked in a raspy, crackling voice.
“Mark Gray,” I said with my voice trembling and humbled by the spirit of a man who could sense my uneasiness. He shadow boxed, told jokes, and shared a few magic tricks with me prompting dirty looks from my fellow reporters. For 10 minutes in my life I was “clowning” with Muhammad Ali like we had been boys for years. That day made me realize the impact you can have on a person’s life or change the course of history by making the commitment to be special.
There are those who are blessed to sense what the world needs at a given moment and Muhammad Ali was that. He opposed the Vietnam War in the late 60s and brokered the release of hostages from Iraq in 1990. Ali also let the world know after the horrific attacks of 911 that Islam was a religion of peace and the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center didn’t represent his faith either. In his own way Ali eased tensions of the world with a calmness that resonated with everyone from political leaders to an insignificant Black newspaper reporter in Atlanta City Hall dressed for casual Friday.
RIP Champ. You’re still the greatest.