Saturday, June 4, 2016

Coming To See Me

Muhammad Ali- 1942-2016

I'm sitting in Pauly Pavilion...on the floor.  This is hallowed ground.  It's the home of the National Champion UCLA basketball team with superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar.  But there is no game today.  The arena has been divided in half with seating in the east end only for the latest guest in the campus speakers series.  I'm sitting alone trying to go unnoticed. My back is up against a seat, but my body and book bag are resting on the floor.
It's been a great series of speakers for this year, 1968.  But the last two were who I didn't want to miss.  First  Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy, and now, today, the person I wanted to see most of all.  I'm here early because of my friend Al, who is on the committee that coordinates the speaker's program.  Al, the East Coast born white guy with the enormous natural.  Al, with whom I've been in countless demonstrations against the war, the draft, the CIA on campus, police brutality, and civil  rights.  Al, who told me, if you ever want to go to any of the speakers presentations I can get you in free, you just have to go an hour early and hang out while I help with the set up.  Al delivered.  That's why I'm here at 1:00 when the speaker is due at 2:00.

So I'm sitting on the floor trying to read.  By 2:30 I can't concentrate.  I'm filled with anticipation.  Marking my place, shifting my weight, I close my book and look up to see two men walking slowly toward me.  One is immediately recognizable.  I'm looking into the face of Muhammad Ali.  This icon looks 50 feet tall because I'm still on the floor.  Ali is making his way across the room talking to Herbert Muhammad, his manager. Herbert is also one of the handlers in his corner.  Ali is casually dressed in sport coat and slacks.  He carries an attache case and is doing most of the talking.  I'm trying to be cool, like I belong.  Should I smile?  I decide not approach him and tell him how much of an inspiration he is to young people.  Instead, I sit and listen carefully.  Ali suddenly stops and takes in the enormity of the room.  I wonder what's in his attache case.  Does he have a speech prepared?  Does he even need a speech to talk to 5,000 people for an hour?  They take a few more steps and suddenly Ali stops and turns to his companion and says.  "In a few minutes, this place will be filled with people.  College people.  I never went to college yet they are all coming to see me and hear me speak."
Ali never said anything like that in his remarks to the crowd that day.  In fact, I scarcely recall what he talked about, save his remarks about not wanting to kill anybody in Vietnam.  He left his audience wanting more time just to be in his presence.  In a heartbeat, he was whisked away into a waiting limo and the program was over.  I don't think I told anyone about my fleeting moment and Ali's thoughts about being on a college campus.  It wasn't until years later when one of my students asked me about the Ali pictures and posters that were part of my wall of faces that I first told the story.
"Mr Greene, " a student asked, "Do you remember anything else about that day?"
Yes, there is one thing I'll never forget.  How magnificently good looking that man was.  If ever there was a use for the phrase larger than life it would be  for Muhammad Ali.

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