Harvey Mackay and his family were in Centennial Olympic Stadium on July 19, 1996, for the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Games. As swimmer Janet Evans reached the top of the climb with the torch, Muhammad Ali appeared and accepted the flame, bent to light a small rocket and that took the flame to the Olympic cauldron.
It made no difference if you were among the fortunate thousands, such as the Mackays, in the stadium, or in front of a TV in Golden Valley. You howled with glee at the Atlanta organizers’ decision on the person to light the flame, and then tears arrived as Ali held on through his Parkinson’s to majestically hold the torch.
“The strength he showed in lighting that flame,” Mackay said. “You felt the electricity through the whole stadium. As the roar went on, I turned to my wife Caroline and said: ‘I have to meet him. I have to spend time with him.’ ”
Mackay was in the process of writing the fourth of his business books. This one was on the art of networking, and titled, “Dig Your Well Before You’re Thirsty: The Only Networking Book You’ll Ever Need.”
“I did the research and found out the people who helped him get started in Louisville,” said the Minnesota native. “One was John Y. Brown, a friend of mine. He put me in touch with Howard Bingham, a photographer and writer who was as close to Muhammad as anyone.”
It was arranged for Mackay to meet with Ali at his 88-acre country home in Berrien Springs, Mich. Harvey wasn’t looking for an in-and-out with Ali. The businessman wanted background from Muhammad that would provide a memorable segment in the book.
“I knew he loved magic,” Mackay said. “So, before I went to Michigan, I sat down with Hondo — our great local magician — and had him show me a few tricks. I wanted to both impress Muhammad and to be able to explain the tricks.
“I’ve discovered if you show a trick to a magician that impresses him or her, and then explain it, you have a friend forever.”
Mackay said he spent six hours in a 1-and-1 conversation with “The Champ” that day. Things were jovial from the opening moment, when Ali reached out for a handshake and said, “Hello, I’m Joe Frazier.”
On Saturday, Mackay recalled that moment and said: “I heard him use that dozens of times. He loved the quick one-liner. The Parkinson’s didn’t take away from his quick mind. It was only the last couple of years when he didn’t talk much.”
Muhammad and his wife, Lonnie, moved from the estate in the Michigan countryside to the Phoenix area several years ago. The Mackays’ primary residence is also there.
The relationship that started that first day in Berrien Springs became a family friendship. On Friday, the Mackays received a call that Muhammad had been admitted to Scottsdale Osborne Medical Center and was in grave condition.
“A year ago, Muhammad had fought back from an infection,” Harvey said. “Everyone was hoping it would happen again.”
The Mackays spent three hours at the hospital, visiting with the family and praying for another comeback.
It did not happen. The announcement of Ali’s death at age 74 was made shortly before midnight (Twin Cities time) on Friday.
Here’s the recollection that always has amazed me when contemplating Ali’s gigantic worldwide stature:
I was working a copy-boy shift at the Minneapolis Morning Tribune in the old building on Portland Avenue on the night Ali fought the first of two fights against Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title.
It was Feb. 25, 1964, and Muhammad still went by the lyrical birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay. He had just turned 22 and had won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a teenager. The champion he was facing was Liston, a glowering former convict said to be tied in with “the mob” that was alleged to control much of boxing.
We sat around a radio on the sports desk and listened to a scratchy description of the fight from ringside in Miami Beach. And most of us wanted Liston to win.
Why would that be?
Because young Cassius Clay was the “Louisville Lip.” He bragged too much and he taunted his opponent. We didn’t believe in taunting in legitimate sports, even when it was aimed at an unlikeable figure such as Liston.
We wanted Sonny to shut up this young smart aleck. Sonny did not. Exhausted, Liston stayed in his corner after the sixth round, and within moments, the new champ was leaping around the ring and putting “I Am the Greatest” forever in America’s sports lexicon.
Blackie Sherrod, the great Dallas sportswriter, put Ali’s verbal barrage before that fight in this perspective a couple of decades later:
“Boxing was into hype before there was such a word. Muhammad Ali took it to a new level. After Ali’s performance in Miami Beach, the buildup for fights went from high jumping to pole vaulting.”
Mackay learned the source of this pre-fight zaniness in his first meeting with Ali at the farm in Michigan. Harvey repeated the tale Saturday:
“Muhammad had a fight [with Duke Sabedong] early in his career in Las Vegas. He appeared on a radio show with Gorgeous George, who was headlining a wrestling show for the same weekend.
“The host asked Muhammad about the opponent and he said something like, ‘I feel like I’ll beat him.’ And then he asked Gorgeous George the same question, and he started screaming into the microphone, and smashing his chair around the studio and promising to destroy his opponent.
“Muhammad had a small crowd for his fight. Gorgeous George and the wrestlers packed the house. And The Champ said he decided right then that being quiet wasn’t the way to sell tickets.”
He taunted, he bragged and he sold tickets. And he turned us into admirers in the process.
You can get teary again, finding the video of Muhammad Ali and the torch in Atlanta.