Running with the Champ
ONE BACK TO PARADISE
AS I DROVE THROUGH THE security gates and into the community of luxury homes in Paradise Valley, Arizona, some very familiar feelings began to surge up once again. After all these years—nearly forty—those feelings hadn’t ever really gone away. Steering the car toward a home back by the communal tennis courts, I thought about all that had been packed into those four decades: ups and downs, laughter and tears, one-of-a-kind moments and incredible adventures. The years could be measured in mansions and penthouse suites, Rolls-Royces and private jets, Hollywood encounters and Las Vegas events. But they could also be measured in quieter moments: morning runs, family dinners, late-night talks. Mostly it had been close to forty years of love, trust, and the deepest friendship I’d ever known.
I was here in Paradise Valley to visit my old friend Muhammad Ali. I pulled up in front of his home and couldn’t help smiling. After all this time, the thought of spending a day with Muhammad still filled me with happiness and excitement. I felt the warmth and the joy that anyone might feel at the prospect of spending precious hours with a loved one. Even after all we’d been through, I still felt that our friendship was an incredible honor and privilege.
Back in 2005, Muhammad and his wife, Lonnie, purchased this second home in Paradise Valley and moved here from their longtime residence in Berrien Springs, Michigan. They hoped that the warmer, drier weather would help in Muhammad’s ongoing battle with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that had been slowly and steadily affecting him since his retirement from boxing in 1981 (he’d been officially diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, at the age of forty-two). In fact, the move had turned out to be extremely beneficial. The weather, intensive physical therapy, and a regimen of cutting-edge medications put Ali in the position he had been in many times in his career: the statistical underdog who astonishes everyone by battling back against a fierce opponent.
Of course, in the ring Ali was often able to finish off his opponents with a knockout. That wasn’t the case now. The disease had weakened and stiffened his muscles, limiting his mobility and making speech difficult. The man who had once thrilled the press and the public with his loud, fast, funny rhymes and over-the-top braggadocio now spoke in a low, hoarse, barely intelligible growl, rarely getting out more than three or four words at a time. And on his bad days, the simplest of tasks was almost impossible without the assistance of Lonnie or her sister Marilyn, who worked as his live-in caregiver. But there were still plenty of good days, when despite his physical limitations, the twinkle in his eyes and the look of recognition and understanding told you he was still fully there: Muhammad Ali, three-time heavyweight champion of the world, and one of the brightest, wittiest, most beloved figures of our time.
Since his move to Paradise Valley, it had become much easier for me to see him. I was living in Southern California and working as regional sales manager for a medical products company. I oversaw eight distribution managers and more than three hundred sales reps across four western states, one of which was Arizona. It had been hard for me to get to Michigan, but now a couple of times a month I could find some reason to do business in Phoenix or Tucson, and whenever I set up those business trips I’d set aside a couple of days to spend time with
Muhammad. As a business traveler, I wasn’t very fussy. All I needed was a decent bed in a first-floor room, access to a business center, and a location that was easy to get in and out of. The accommodations were never important to me. What really mattered was spending as much time as possible with Muhammad without becoming an inconvenience to Lonnie or Marilyn. My wife, Helga, and I have always gotten along well with both of them and really appreciated the trust they extended to us. We didn’t ever want to take for granted the fact that we had been allowed to remain an active part of Muhammad’s life.
This particular trip had been thrown together quickly, so my visit with the Champ was going to be a surprise for him. I’d called Lonnie to make sure it was OK to come by, and she told me that while she’d be away for the day, Marilyn would be there with him and I could come by early and spend the entire afternoon with him.
IT’S ABOUT TEN A.M. AS I ring the bell at the front door of Muhammad’s beautiful home. Marilyn greets me, shows me in, and tells me that Muhammad is still in bed. He’s on some new medications and has been sleeping much later into the day. Marilyn is always completely focused on Muhammad’s needs, and does a great job of making sure that his days are balanced between what he wants to do and what he’s required to do as part of his ongoing treatment.
“I don’t know what time he’s going to get up,” she says, “but yesterday it was noon.”
It is actually good to hear that he is getting a good rest every night. As long as I’ve known Ali, he has been a chronic insomniac, and it has always been hard for him to get as much sleep as his body needed. He used to tell me that whenever he closed his eyes, he would start thinking about all the world’s troubles and would stay wide awake figuring out how and where he might use his fame to help solve problems.
Muhammad is currently recovering from a medical procedure. He has recently had surgery on his throat to loosen his rigid vocal cords. The surgeon in Boston gave Lonnie and Marilyn high hopes that the
surgery would release the pressure on Muhammad’s larynx and trachea and would make it easier for him to swallow and speak. Marilyn tells me that she’s been doing voice exercises with the Champ and that he is responding with enthusiasm. But it’s still not clear whether the results of the surgery will be a brief relief or an ongoing success.
Marilyn walks me into the home’s sunny kitchen, where Muhammad spends a good portion of his day. In the breakfast area there’s Ali’s throne—a high-end easy chair (with built-in vibrator), placed in front of a TV and DVD player that run almost constantly for Muhammad’s benefit. He has a large library of favorite films, and as soon as one ends, Marilyn asks him what he wants to watch next. I am not at all surprised to see that the DVD currently loaded is a Clint Eastwood feature, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Muhammad loves westerns, and he always enjoys watching Clint, whom he first met back in 1969 in the greenroom of The David Frost Show. As Marilyn goes about her daily routine, I sit down at the breakfast table, pick up the remote, and start watching the film from where Muhammad left off.
After a while, Marilyn heads into Muhammad’s bedroom to check on him. She comes back to tell me that he’s awake and wants to get up, so she’s going to help him get dressed. A few minutes later, he shuffles slowly into the kitchen with Marilyn at his side. Even on his bad days, he always wants to be fully dressed when he leaves his bedroom, and today he’s in tracksuit pants and a knit T-shirt. But it does indeed look like this is one of his bad days—he has his eyes closed tightly and is letting Marilyn guide him to the kitchen table. I’m about to get up and help her, but she motions for me to stay seated. She helps him sit down, and puts his breakfast in front of him. With his eyes still closed and his head hanging down, he picks up his spoon and begins to eat.
I’m not terribly shocked, because I have seen this before. Light can bother some Parkinson’s patients, and Muhammad will often keep his eyes closed to relieve the irritation. And sometimes—whether the light is bothering him or not—if he isn’t feeling fully himself, he’ll keep his eyes closed until he really feels ready to let the world in.
“Muhammad,” says Marilyn in a cheerful voice. “Open your eyes.
Somebody’s here to see you, Muhammad. Open your eyes, Muhammad, you have a visitor.”
I wait to see how long it takes for him to notice who’s sitting at his table. I keep waiting for him to look at me but he doesn’t look up. He just keeps his head down and continues to eat.
“Muhammad,” I say softly. No response.
Marilyn speaks in an even quieter, gentler voice. “Muhammad, you have a surprise visitor. Open your eyes. Look who’s here to see you.”
Slowly, he lifts his head and focuses. His eyes light up and he makes a funny face at me—his “mocking” face. Then, he speaks.
Now I am shocked. His voice is louder and clearer than it’s been in years. It’s loud enough that I’m actually knocked back in my chair. Marilyn is just as shocked, and almost instantly she has tears in her eyes.
“Muhammad Ali!” I shout back. “The heavyweight champion of the world! The Greatest of All Times! Muhammad Ali is saying my name. I haven’t heard you say my name like that in twenty years. I don’t even remember the last time I heard you say my name.”
I’m smiling and laughing and looking at him across the table. He’s looking straight back at me—his “mocking” face has shifted into a no-nonsense expression.
“Can you say that again, Muhammad?” I repeat my name for him.
“TIM SHANAHAN,” he shouts back.
Now I’m a little choked up, too. In the earliest days of our friendship, this was his way of saying hello to me—booming out my name whenever he saw me, no matter where we were or who else was around. After a while, he stopped using the distinctive bellow and would just quietly say, “Shanahan,” giving it a little emphasis as if it were a word from a magic spell. I knew from the start that he was certainly not the kind of friend from whom I was going to hear “Hi, Tim, how you doing?” or “Hey, Tim, what’s going on?” and that was fine by me. I was very happy to get the occasional “Shanahan” mixed in with the more common “What’s happenin’?” or “What it is?” But over the years, as it got harder and harder for him to speak, he just didn’t say my name at
all. He would simply find some other way to acknowledge me. I think it had been years since I had heard a “Shanahan” and probably decades since I had heard “Tim.” Hearing my full name as loud and clear as he had shouted it was like taking a ride in a time machine.
Muhammad turns his attention back to his breakfast, and it doesn’t look as though he’s going to say anything more. That doesn’t bother me at all.
“OK, Marilyn,” I say. “If I die today, I’m a happy man.”
I MET MUHAMMAD WHEN HE was the reigning heavyweight champ, and it hasn’t been easy over the years to watch a man who had been such a perfect physical specimen become more and more dependent upon the care of others. He never surrendered his spirit to his physical problems, though, and anyone who knew Muhammad was not surprised that, through all his struggles, he maintained his dignity and his sense of humor. He made it clear to me that the last thing in the world he wanted was for people to pity him, and he had said to me many times, “Tell people I’m not suffering. I’m not in pain. I just get tired.” He still appreciated what a unique, remarkable life he lived, and he didn’t see any reason to view his circumstances in a negative way. I often thought of something he told me years ago when I asked him if he was satisfied with his life.
“I’ve lived the lives of a hundred men,” he responded. “And I wouldn’t do anything differently. My middle name is ‘Controversy’ and that’s what made my life interesting.”
As his illness progressed, Muhammad was always defying expectations. One day I would call him on the phone and could barely get a word out of him. Then just a few days later he’d be on the phone sounding sharp and responsive and would actually be initiating the conversation with prompts such as “Tell me about when we bought the Rolls in Chicago.” I loved to retell our old stories to him, and on some of my visits we’d watch a DVD collection of his old interviews, some dating back to when he was just eighteen years old. I always got a kick out of hearing him hush the people around him because he wanted to hear
once more how brilliantly “The Greatest” answered some decades-old question. In reliving those better days from the past, he could keep his mind alert and active.
Throughout his career, whenever he had obstacles to overcome or hard times to get through, his philosophy had been that the difficulties were challenges from God that he was expected to pass. To Ali, Parkinson’s was simply one of the bigger tests he’d been faced with.
“God tests me every day that I wake up with my disease,” he’d say, “and I pass the test every time.”
With all that in mind, when I came to visit with him I made a point of treating him as I always had, never allowing his medical condition to come between us. I didn’t put on an “act”—I just let the tone of our friendship be what it always had been—upbeat and full of humor. I’d talk the way I’d always talked to him, and I knew him well enough that I could speak his half of the conversation for him when I knew it would be too much trouble for him to respond. He’d told me that he actually preferred this form of communication, pointing out that it took him twice as much energy to respond as it did to listen. He’d rather listen intently than interrupt the flow of a story.
I know some people found it difficult or awkward to be around Ali now because they didn’t know how to engage him. I never had a problem dealing with Muhammad’s Parkinson’s, maybe because I saw the disease develop from its onset over the years and knew what to expect each time I saw him. It helped that we had those decades of experiences to draw on, so when I launched into a story, I knew that he knew exactly what I was talking about.
Muhammad always loved getting gifts—any kind of gift—and ripped into a package like a kid at Christmas. I got into the habit of bringing a few special things along with me on my visits. I learned through Marilyn that Muhammad enjoyed playing any kind of board game that required mental agility and strategy. She was always buying new games to play with him, and I tried to find gifts that would give him pleasure but also challenge him. I sat with him for some very competitive hours of rolling dice and moving pieces, and was always
happy to see that his will to win was not affected by his disease. He still loved showing off his ability to outthink an opponent, and when Marilyn or I lost a game to him, it was never on purpose. It was because he beat us.
I also always brought a big stack of eight-by-ten photos for us to look through. These would generally be all kinds of photos from our times together—shots from training camps, parties, family dinners, and get-togethers. I knew Muhammad still enjoyed the sight of a beautiful woman, so I’d make sure to include photos of him standing with such beauties as Sophia Loren, Lola Falana, Christie Brinkley, Bo Derek, and Diana Ross. When Helga and I first met Ali, he was with his third wife, Veronica Porche Ali, and within a couple of years they had two children, Hana and Laila. I had many pictures of Helga and me together with Muhammad, Veronica, Hana, and Laila, and Muhammad always seemed to enjoy these very much. Muhammad always wanted to hold all the pictures himself and go through them one at a time, deciding how long he wanted to look at each one (he tended to linger on pictures of the very beautiful Veronica). He would study them carefully and listen to me describe who was in the shot and where it was taken. I was always looking for signs of recognition, ready to give answers to whatever he might ask about. His most common questions were “How old is he?” “Where is he now?” “How many grandchildren?” “Is he still married?” “Is he still making money?” and “Is she still a fox?”
I might try to jog his memory once or twice, asking him if he remembered a particular day or place or person. If he didn’t answer, I would move on.
“Sometimes I can remember thirty years ago but I can’t remember three weeks ago,” he would say—not as a complaint, just a statement of fact.
I would also bring Muhammad coffee-table books full of photos I knew he would like, though I had learned the hard way that these books often didn’t last too long. Parkinson’s patients can have a compulsion to engage in repetitive movements and one of the things that was very
satisfying for Muhammad was tearing the pages out of books. He’d enjoy whatever the photos were, but with great concentration he’d rip them out, page by page, slowly and methodically. He was aware of what he was doing, and you could see that the tearing was soothing and relaxing for him. I never saw this ritual as the waste of a good book—I liked seeing Muhammad enjoy himself, and if tearing the books was what gave him pleasure, then so be it. I brought him some beautiful photo books of his favorite celebrities—Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Sophia Loren, Cher, Clint Eastwood, the Beatles—and would actually look on with joy as he tore up each of them.
AFTER ALI FINISHES HIS BREAKFAST, we stay at the kitchen table and watch the rest of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly together. He grew up watching TV westerns such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Have Gun—Will Travel, and Wyatt Earp, and still loves anything that involves a showdown between the good guys and the bad guys. In addition to westerns, he is particularly fond of horror films—especially anything with Christopher Lee’s Dracula—as well as films with great dance scenes (as an athlete who moved so well on his feet, he has a great appreciation for the grace of Fred Astaire and the athleticism of Gene Kelly, and he often said about them what people said about him: they made amazing moves look easy).
On this visit I’ve brought Muhammad two picture books—one on Marilyn Monroe and one on the Beatles. Not surprisingly, he asks to see the Marilyn Monroe book first. And by the time Clint Eastwood is staring down his opponents in the film’s climactic “Mexican standoff,” Muhammad has carefully torn half the Marilyn photos out of the book. I produce my usual stack of personal photos for him, and we start to go through them together. This time I’ve brought fifty or so pictures of Muhammad with some of his better-known celebrity friends.
“Do you remember him?” I ask.
“Do you know who that is, Muhammad?”
“Kris.” It’s Kris Kristofferson, with whom Muhammad has had one of his longest-running Hollywood friendships. “Where is he now?”
“I think he’s in his home on Maui, but he wants to come visit you again soon.”
I show Muhammad a photo of him standing between Sir Paul McCartney and his then-wife, Heather Mills.
“Are they still married?” Muhammad asks.
“No, they got divorced.”
“Was it bad?” he asks.
“Well, it was bad for Paul,” I say. “It cost him a lot. But the good news is that it’s a wonderful picture of you two. We can crop out the ex-wife and you and Paul will look terrific together.”
Muhammad laughs his low, guttural laugh. Boy, do I love that laugh.
We work our way through the rest of the photos like that, and then he pulls out some of the shots of Veronica, Hana, and Laila and sets them aside—a sign that he wants me to leave these with him (I always leave all the photos with Marilyn anyway).
When we’ve made it through the pictures, Muhammad starts to get out of his chair. Part of maintaining his dignity comes in doing as much as he can for himself, no matter how long it takes. Marilyn is always there to help him, as am I, but we let him do whatever he can for himself. Now he stands, without my help, and begins to walk back toward the refrigerator. This is part of the routine of his day. He’s gotten up and gotten dressed. He’s taken his medicine and entertained his guest. Now he’s earned a reward: ice cream.
He gets to the refrigerator, opens the freezer, selects a half-gallon container of vanilla, and sets it on the counter. Marilyn takes over and begins to scoop up a couple of bowls of ice cream. “Muhammad, you are one spoiled child. You get your way too much,” she says, scolding him and granting his request at the same time. She has told me that the ice cream is not just a treat—it soothes his throat and makes it easier for him to swallow solid foods, and it is also an excellent medium for masking the taste of his medications.
Muhammad seems to be moving very well on his feet today, so I decide to ask if he can pull off one of his old magic tricks.
“Hey, Muhammad, can you still levitate?”
For as long as I’ve known him, Muhammad has had a fascination with magic, and over the years he has actually become fairly proficient at sleight-of-hand tricks. Muhammad once hired Terry Lasorda—a very talented magician and the nephew of the former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda—to move into his training camp so that he could learn new tricks as he prepared for a fight. Mostly Muhammad stuck with card tricks, but he had one larger classic illusion he loved to show people. He would angle himself with his back to a group of observers, and then, while holding his heels tightly together, would lean all of his weight on the toes of his right foot. He could then bring both heels up while balancing his body so that he appeared to be floating. I’d seen him mystify groups of fans with the trick many times, though just as often people seemed to assume he was showing off another of his natural abilities: He’s Muhammad Ali—of course he can levitate.
This illusion is a hard move to pull off for a fit athlete, let alone a seventy-year-old man with Parkinson’s. But, with some encouragement from Marilyn, Muhammad goes for it. He places one hand on the kitchen counter, one hand on my shoulder, and somehow manages to get all his weight on the toes of one foot so that he is up in the air for several seconds. I love it—in some ways the fact that he can still pull off a levitation is as wonderful as hearing him say my name so clearly and loudly. I make a fuss over the fact that he can still float like a butterfly, and ask if he can still “sting like a bee.” He flicks a couple of quick, accurate jabs just shy of my face, then digs into his ice cream.
I have never had much of a sweet tooth, but for as long as I’ve known Muhammad, ice cream has been his main vice and a constant source of pleasure. And when Muhammad eats ice cream, he likes to see that you are sharing that pleasure with him. I couldn’t possibly count the number of scoops of chocolate and vanilla I have eaten alongside
Muhammad through the years. Today, I have another bowl of ice cream with the Champ.
I stay awhile longer, just joking around with Muhammad and going over some of our favorite stories. I don’t ever really feel ready to leave Muhammad, but there always comes a time when it is clear that he’s had enough activity for the day. There’s never any big deal about my leaving—no “Thanks for coming” or special goodbyes. I don’t need that. I always want to be confident that this will not be the last time I see my friend, and I want our goodbye to be as happy and easy as our goodbyes always have been.
I tell him it’s time for me to leave and, as always, he puts both of his hands on the arms of the chair—he wants to get up and see me to the door. I go to his chair and kneel down next to him before he makes the effort to get up. I put my arm over his shoulders behind his neck and give him a kiss on the left cheek. Then I say what I always say at the end of our visits: “I love you, Champ.”
And he says what he always says in these situations: “Maaaan . . .”
THERE HAVE BEEN TIMES WHEN I drive away from a visit with Muhammad feeling sad, mostly because my time with him has come to an end and I don’t know when I will see him again. Even though I know he is being well cared for by Lonnie and Marilyn, I often can’t help but worry about what his days are like when he doesn’t have a visitor to break up the routine. He is the man responsible for the most exciting times in my life, and though his body has slowed, I know his amazing mind is still active. I hate the idea of him being alone, far from so many of the family members and friends who love him. After many of my visits, I find myself hoping that Muhammad still wants to be here. I hope that his moments of joy can still balance out the moments of pain.
Leaving his home this day, though, I do not feel sad. On the way from Muhammad’s house to the airport, I am focused on all the amazing moments of our thirty-eight years of friendship, and I am grateful that I have just been able to spend a few more cherished moments with
my friend. As I think about our friendship, I am aware that my own name is ringing in my ears. It’s ringing that way because Muhammad Ali has shouted it out, loud and clear, and that has me beaming with happiness, hope, and love. I concentrate on that wonderful sound and as I do, it feels as if thirty-eight years have just melted away.