Muhammad Ali's arm quivered as he extended his hand and my voice trembled as I introduced myself that magical day almost 20 years ago.
I was a young sports columnist at the South Bend Tribune and Ali was the living legend 1,500 people had lined up to meet Dec. 28, 1996, at a Mishawaka, Ind., bookstore. Before Ali signed autographs for three hours, he stepped into a private room for 20 minutes to give yet another sports journalist the highlight of a career. It didn't matter that I was a stranger he had just met with a notebook and a tape recorder; Ali treated me like Howard Cosell
He performed magic tricks. He playfully punched me in the jaw. He asked questions, despite his speech already being affected enough by Parkinson's disease to limit his public speaking. With his wife, Lonnie, at his side, Ali revealed that he never turned kids away because he remembered how much it hurt when Sugar Ray Robinson ignored his request for an autograph back before he was old enough to spar.
He kidded and cajoled and connected one-on-one, as effectively as any right hook. Sensing anxiety, Ali used his sense of humor and charisma to put his inexperienced questioner at ease. And it worked, resulting in a mesmerizing, unforgettable experience unmatched since.
Sports writers get asked all the time to name the most famous person they ever have interviewed. I am among the lucky ones who can answer Ali, the most recognizable man on the planet whose death the world mourns after he passed away late Friday night at the age of 74.
Ali was so much more than a great fighter who won three heavyweight titles. No obituary, tweet or Facebook post can capture the overall impact of perhaps the greatest athlete ever. No words among the millions offered this week ever will be adequate enough to express all that Ali meant to sports and society. He was the sports hero other American heroes wanted to meet. He was a compelling combination of outstanding and outrageous, the standard by which sports measures social awareness and involvement. He was incomparable.
The next time a professional athlete thoughtfully speaks out against an issue or supports a cause near and dear to his or her heart, remember Ali made it hip to be heard on anything and everything back during a time when society's convention ruled. The boxer could be a punisher in the ring and a poet out of it. He really did float like a butterfly and sting like a bee when he boxed, but his words also danced when he spoke. When historians talk about Ali's reach, they aren't just referring to his arms. When they discuss Ali's most significant accomplishments, the Thrilla in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle are only a small part of a long list.
You can discuss whether Ali or Jackie Robinson was a more transcendent sports pioneer but the debate stops with those two. Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth maybe each accomplished more individually as an athlete than Ali, whose career record was 56-5 with 37 knockouts.
But only Robinson, the Dodgers' African-American player who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier, could relate to the way Ali took advantage of his platform in a bold manner that set a standard for generations of professional athletes to follow. Taking nothing away from the effect today's contemporary sports icons such as LeBron James or Serena Williams have on people, Ali's status dwarfs them by comparison.
Ali stood for what he believed in before it was accepted that athletes could influence the way Americans thought. He broadened the national conversation on race relations. He created enemies across the country during the Vietnam War era by objecting to the military draft and converting to Islam, yet followed his conscience despite the consequences. You didn't have to agree with his views to respect the courage and audacity required to defend them. Following his political and religious convictions cost Ali more than three years of his prime — the kind of sacrifice difficult to relate to for today's millionaire athletes.
Yet later in life, the man spread enough peace to become a symbol of unity, the most indelible image when the 1960 gold medalist lit the Olympic caldron during opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Has there ever been a more powerful Olympic moment?
Watch the old post-fight clips and listen to the archives of his interviews. His authenticity inspires awe. He was as colorful as he was quotable, making people uncomfortable by challenging the status quo. He changed the way athletes interacted with the media, making good-natured ribbing and confrontation cool and accepted. He understood sports as entertainment, even though he retired for good in 1981.
And once he did, Ali estimated he had been hit in the head 29,000 times. He beat Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and George Foreman and Leon Spinks, among others, but encountered his toughest opponent three years after he stopped boxing: Parkinson's. For three decades he fought bravely against the disease — a malfunction and death of vital nerve cells in the brain — but it slowly robbed him of his faculties. The effects of it made speaking difficult and smiling a challenge for Ali. It changed a man but cannot touch our memories of him. Those are the greatest.
And so was he.