June 6, 2016
Muhammad Ali – champion, poet,
magician, a man of love and peace
By KEITH GAVE
You never know who you’re going to run into in the Red Wings’ dressing room. I’ve met Hollywood icons, rock stars and prominent players from other professional sports like baseball and football. But one quiet spring afternoon – in the mid-1990s, the good old days when the Wings were involved in all those long seasons that involved multiple playoff series – I met the greatest of them all.
At first, I thought the room was empty, and that I’d missed my chance to catch up with anybody who could help me advance a story I was working on. But when I turned the corner, there stood the most recognizable man in the world performing a magic trick for Bowman and his associate coach, Barry Smith. Muhammad Ali pulled a red handkerchief out of what appeared to be his empty hand, then tucked it back in and made it disappear.
He smiled, then gave the trick away by showing the fake thumb attached to his hand. I stood quietly for a moment. But before making my leave and telling Scotty I’d catch up with him later, I extended my hand toward Ali.
His huge right hand took mine and held it briefly. I wouldn’t even call it a shake, really. But I was struck by how soft it felt, almost delicate, that hand that felled some of the biggest and most dangerous heavyweight fighters in boxing history.
“Thank you, Champ,” I said, and left, thinking I’d just met one of the most important people in my lifetime – and it had nothing to do with boxing.
Muhammad Ali died Friday. He was 74. He had battled Parkinson’s Disease for the last 30 years of his life, but it was septic shot that put him down for the final count. His daughter reported that doctors said his heart kept beating for 30 minutes after his organs failed him. Does this surprise anyone who saw this man in his prime?
I was 17 years old – one year away from being eligible for the Selective Service draft – when Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, and essentially refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.
“I got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” said Ali, who a few years earlier changed his name from Cassius Clay when he joined the Nation of Islam. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother. . . How can I shoot them poor people. Just take me to jail.”
And they nearly did. On June 20, 1967, the heavyweight champion of the world was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years in what should have been the prime of his career. He stayed
out of prison as his case was appealed. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall had recused himself.)
The one thing Ali could do better than box was talk, and he never stopped talking about his opposition to the Vietnam War, even while he wasn’t able to box. He spoke everywhere, mostly on college campuses across the nation, where unrest was growing as students began to organize and mobilize against the war and the American government that was waging it.
Muhammad Ali led my generation to the streets in largely peaceful demonstrations against the war. Within a few years after he was back in the ring, that war finally ended. But not after America lost 58,220 men and women in that war. The toll on the other side was staggering. The U.S. Department of Defense has estimated that the Vietnamese sustained a total of 882,000 deaths – 655,000 adult males above the age of 15, 143,000 adult females and 84,000 children.
Muhammad Ali, an American hero who won an Olympic gold medal in 1960, refused to report for duty, refused to pick up a weapon and aim it at people he had no quarrel with – and for that he was widely reviled.
But to me, he was a hero for taking such an unpopular stand that made so much sense in my mind. A few years later, when my student deferment ran out and I was classified 1-A just like Ali had been, I got my letter from Richard Nixon that began, “Greetings. . .”
I was drafted, just like Ali and millions of others of my generation. Like most of the others, I didn’t want to go either. But I didn’t have the guts (or the money to pay lawyers) to stand up as a conscientious objector.
Ali taught is all that it’s all right to stand up for what you believe in and to fight for what you know in your heart is right. He kept fighting until that ugly war ended, then he found other things to fight for – always in the name of peace.
I don’t often get weak-kneed and starry-eyed when I cross paths with celebrities, but I froze for a moment that day in the Wings’ dressing room. Ali caught my eye and smiled, and I watched him make that hanky disappear.
I shook his hand. I thanked him. And I mean it as much now as I did then.