I met Muhammad Ali in the mid-1980’s. One of my former UVA law professors called me. “There’s a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court this week in a case against Muhammad Ali. His attorney, Richard Hirschfeld, needs a member of the California bar to serve as local counsel. How’d you like to represent the champ?” After I succeeded in de-swallowing my tongue, I grabbed the chance.
I met Hirschfeld for dinner in a Beverly Hills restaurant the night before the hearing. He and I arrived before Ali and his wife, Lonnie, so he could brief me on the case. In the process, I learned that he and Ali were close friends, he acted as a general counsel for Ali, and he and Ali had teamed up on various business ventures. I liked Richard, but something I couldn’t put my finger on gave me a vague sense of unease about him.
When Ali and Lonnie walked into the place, every head turned. He looked great. Dressed in a blue suit and white shirt, he stood tall and had a slim waist and broad shoulders, but he walked slowly and his motions looked stiff. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease the previous year. In tapes of his last fights and interviews, you can see what may have been symptoms of the disease eating away at his talent. His punches are slower and weaker; his moves more sluggish; his speech quieter and raspier. When I met him that night, his speech was slurred and muted, but if you listened carefully, you could still hear Ali in his voice. Despite the disease, he was good-natured and mischievous. He was plenty smart, too. He had his own ideas about the case and he made clear he was in charge.
Lonnie was fun, kind, personable, and warm, but she was tough when she needed to be. She was a great match for Ali in that stage of his life, I thought, in part because she struck a perfect balance between being solicitous of his condition without patronizing him or smothering him with over-protectiveness.
We met at the courthouse at eight the next morning. The hearing didn’t start until nine so we went to the courthouse cafeteria for coffee. When we walked in, the crowd went still. Then came breathless murmurs: “Ali” and “the champ.” Every eye in the room followed us as we got coffee and sat at a table by the windows.
It developed spontaneously. They approached him tentatively, a few at a time, and then more of them, and then everyone in the place was crowded around us, some with little-kid grins on their faces, others with awe in their eyes. They wanted to shake his hand, touch him, see him up close.
He carried with him everywhere an endless supply of pamphlets about Islam. He had written on each one: “To: ___________” and he had signed it “Muhammad Ali.” These weren’t computer generated signatures. He had written them out some time earlier in the tortured scrawl that the disease inflicted on his hand, every single one of them, knowing he could cover more people if they didn’t have to wait for him to struggle with his signature.
As each person came up to him, he rasped, “What’s your name?” He wrote the names slowly as best he could in the blank space and handed the pamphlets to them. He turned no one away. I sat beside him that morning and watched him sign those things for the better part of an hour, marveling at the amount of time he must have spent preparing them beforehand.
In the courtroom at the hearing, the judge held settlement discussions with each side individually. We sat on benches out in the hallway while the judge met with the opposing party.
“You read the Quran?” Ali asked me.
“No, but I’ve read big chunks of the Bible. My dad’s a Methodist preacher.”
“I know,” he said, although I don’t know how he knew. He handed me a pamphlet. “Read the Quran.” I put it in my breast pocket.
Before our session with the judge started, Ali told Richard and me he wanted to talk to the judge alone, with no lawyers present. Richard said it’s a hard and fast rule that lawyers don’t allow their clients to speak to judges alone. I agreed. Ali told us what we could do with our lawyers’ rule. Richard smiled. We sat out in the hallway while Ali talked to the judge alone for almost an hour.
It worked. The case settled. My job was done. Ali thanked me for my help and shook my hand. I’ll never forget looking down at that big hand, scarred and rough and strong. This is the hand that knocked out Floyd Patterson, I thought, and pounded on Joe Frazier’s head in the Thrilla in Manila and felled George Foreman like a big redwood tree in the eighth round in Zaïre. I didn’t know it then, but this would also be the hand that Ali somehow managed to still from its Parkinson’s palsy long enough to light the Olympic cauldron with a torch in Atlanta in 1996.
I wasn’t there later that afternoon when Ali told the limo driver to take him to South Central LA, but others told me about it. He told the driver to stop in a bombed-out area and got out of the car. Traffic in the streets and on the sidewalks stopped dead. They crowded around him and he talked to them and hugged some of them and gave them all signed pamphlets. For hours.
Lonnie sent me a warm letter a few weeks later. Enclosed was an autographed picture of Ali addressed to my son, who was still a boy then. I didn’t ask for it. She was just being gracious.
My uneasiness about Richard Hirschfeld was prescient, I suppose. In the 1990’s Ali sued him, alleging he had tricked Ali into signing away the rights to his life story. Later, Richard served four years in federal prison for tax evasion and other crimes. After his release he was indicted on fraud charges and fled the country. In 2006, the feds caught him, and at the age of 57, he hanged himself with a plastic wrap in a jailhouse laundry room. He left behind a 32 page suicide letter. Along with professing his innocence to all charges, he declared his continuing affection for Ali. A Washington Post obituary, which chronicles some of these events, can be found here. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5384-2005Jan12.html
This week, the air waves are full with commentary about Ali’s life and deeds and what he has meant to the world. Most sing his praises. A few highlight his flaws. I only clocked about eight hours with Ali, not nearly enough to gauge the full measure of a person, but this much I know: He was a devout Muslim. He fought his best fight against Parkinson’s Disease. He put the power of his public image to what he considered to be its highest and best use. And I was privileged to spend a short time with him.