My Glimpse of the Greatest: Muhammad Ali

The clock radio snapped on at six-thirty a.m. to the soothing jazz saxophone of David Sanborn.  It was a tune called The Dream, which seemed appropriate under the circumstances.  As the song and my dreamworld faded out simultaneously, the gentle voice of host Yvonne Daniels cooed that one WNUA contest entrant soon would be named winner of a fabulous prize.  The lucky listener only had to phone her at the number about to be announced.

Wiping sleep from my eyes, I mumbled “this could be my lucky day” to Sylvia during the ensuing string of radio ads.  It was the same thing I mumbled every morning since mailing in my entry form weeks before.  Returning from the commercial break, Yvonne announced my name!  I had until the end of the next song to phone in for a free round-trip plane ticket to anywhere in the the forty-eight contiguous states.

Now, what was that phone number again?  Fortunately, she repeated it before segueing into the song.  I fumbled around with the telephone handset, before managing to punch in the correct numbers.  Yvonne answered.  Upon verifying my identity and making some small talk, I became the happy recipient of one round-trip plane ticket with an expiration date matching the unopened carton of half-and-half in the fridge.  “Only one ticket?” Sylvia pouted.

With new jobs and unable to plan a vacation for both of us around a single plane ticket within the required time frame, I used it to attend a work-related conference in Washington, D.C. instead.  There are worse places to be in early March, I thought.  The Computers in Libraries conference was held at the Sheraton Washington and laid the groundwork for what eventually became my adjunct career, teaching librarians how to use the Internet.  A recurring theme of the conference, “the Internet is by no means a user friendly network,” was pretty accurate in 1992.

Sitting in the hotel lounge after a day of sessions, swapping library stories with a few colleagues, someone pointed to a man rushing toward us.  “Isn’t that Al Jarreau?”  she whispered.  We all turned our heads and he waved at us as he passed.  Naturally, I wondered where he was headed.  Rising slowly from my seat, I stretched my arms, yawned, and casually walked away from the waning conversation to follow Al into another part of the hotel complex.  Just a few years before, Sylvia and I had seen him in concert.  So, a sense of entitlement drove me to find out what he was up to now.

I meandered through a long, narrow hallway that opened into a lobby/reception area at the entrance to an auditorium visible through several sets of open double doors.  My eyes widened to scan a space packed mostly with black men and women in formal evening wear.  My jaw dropped upon spotting Jesse Jackson standing at a high-top table chatting with an entourage.  It may have dropped to the floor as a smiling, dreadlocked and darkglassed Stevie Wonder approached, escorted between two serious-looking men lightly touching his elbows.  When they were near enough, I blurted, “I love you, Stevie!”  “I love you, too!” he replied as his handlers nervously scurried him past me.

Leaning toward someone who looked like an outsider, I muttered, “What’s going on?”  He handed me a booklet.  It was a conference program for the Eighth Annual Communications Awards Dinner of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (NABOB).  I quickly scanned the contents.  They were gathered to honor Michael Jackson with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  Holy crap!  Was Michael Jackson in this room?  As that thought lingered, several ushers appeared to be rounding up the celebrities.  In all honesty, many of these celebs looked familiar, but I couldn’t recall their names.  For sure, Michael Jackson wasn’t among them.

The distinguished guests filed into the auditorium where the ceremony was just beginning.  Still clutching the program booklet, I wandered over to one of the open doorways where a handful of fellow gawkers were positioned to catch as much of the action as possible.  The program began with a speaker making introductions.  Jesse Jackson and his young daughter Jacqueline were introduced, as were several other dignitaries and music executives.  A couple of politicos, Senator Bill Bradley and Representative Bill Richardson were among those introduced.  But the unexpected highlight for me was witnessing the introduction of Muhammad Ali.  He stood majestically and held up his outstretched hand to thundering applause.

Suddenly ushers appeared out of nowhere, closing the auditorium doors in our faces while affirming we could no longer watch the proceedings.  Michael Jackson, according to subsequent reports, accepted a lifetime achievement award in his trademark gloved hand.  He delivered what was allegedly his longest ever thank-you speech to date.  It comprised nineteen words.

Forget Michael.  I’d caught a glimpse of Ali, Heavyweight Champion of the World.  To have felt electrified in his presence for just those few seconds was worth a thousand words to me.

Author’s note: Somewhere in a cardboard storage box, I filed away that NABOB program booklet.  One of these days I hope to find it.

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