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Muhammad Ali Kissed Me Once

Author Karen Grigsby Bates with the late Muhammad Ali.
Courtesy of Karen Grigsby Bates
Author Karen Grigsby Bates with the late Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali kissed me once.

Don't be a dope — it wasn't like that. It was in front of a whole bunch of people and my then-boyfriend and Mrs. Ali. (And two of his future wives. I'll get to that in a moment.) I was lucky enough to meet him a few times over several decades, but the first time was the most memorable.

It was my senior year in college. Ali was in Boston — probably on other business — and came to speak to Harvard's class of 1973. I didn't go to Harvard, but the boyfriend did, so I came to Boston from my nearby school for the event. It felt like there were 1,000 people filling the seats and lining the walls of that auditorium, with the Cambridge fire marshal futilely trying to shoo the extras out.

He was at peak gorgeousness, in a pale suit, smooth-skinned and sleek as a panther. As students and police escorted him to the stage, Ali practically danced up the steps. He received a standing ovation, and when things quieted down, he looked out into the crowd and grinned. He never thought something this amazing would happen to him, a kid from Kentucky, he began. He knew Harvard was the alma mater of countless amazing people — "presidents, governors, mayors, great scientists and physicians ... everything ..." so he knew he had to bring it. He was thankful to be there, he told his audience.

"It's such a high seat of learning, and I'm just a boxer, when most boxers can't even talk." Pause. "You couldn't invite Joe Frazier or George Foreman ..." He looked at the students innocently as the hall exploded with laughter.

Word had circulated that there would be another, much smaller gathering at Harvard's Afro House, a Victorian with a wide front porch in residential Cambridge not far from where he'd spoken. We got there late — the room was stuffed. Ali was sitting in a big armchair in the house's large living room, which was choked with students — they were perched on the sofas and windowsills and sitting cross-legged on the floor. I managed to squeeze in front of one of the large living room windows, where I could kneel on the porch, put my elbows on the sill, and watch Ali address the crowd.

He answered questions, but mostly he lectured. A college education is an important thing, he told us; many black people didn't get the opportunity to have one. Don't waste it. Do something with it. And not just for yourself — do something for your people. If you don't do that, he asked, then what's the point?

Standing behind him were his present and future wives — quiet Khalilah (nee Belinda Boyd), glamorous Veronica Porsche and an adoring young Yolanda ("Lonnie") Williams, his Louisville neighbor. All were dressed in floor-length, floaty dresses, with wisps of chiffon head coverings. I thought something was up, but it wasn't until 1977 that Ali and Khalilah divorced and shortly after, Veronica Porsche became the third Mrs. Ali. Lonnie would become, as she once firmly told me, "his fourth and last wife" in 1986. (Prophecy?)

When the visit concluded, Ali and his entourage swept through the house's front door, right past where I was standing. He was huge. I probably looked like a total goober, mouth agape. He stopped in front of me, waiting.

"You're even bigger than I thought you were!" I blurted.

Looking very grim, he put a hand under each of my armpits and lifted me up until we were face to face, like I was a 3 year-old.

"I'm the biggest and the prettiest man you'll ever meet!" He faux-growled. "And don't you forget that!"

Then he kissed my left cheek — a loud, comical smacking noise — and gently set me down.

The porch and kids on the lawn immediately went into "Oooooooohhhh" (the clarion prelude to many schoolyard fights) and a couple joked at my boyfriend: "You gonna let him do that to your woman, man?"

The boyfriend —a very reedy 6 feet and all of 130 pounds, maybe — held up his hands in mock surrender.

Ali pretended to be horrified and spread his palms wide. "Oh, I didn't know she was your girlfriend! I didn't mean nuthin'. We don't have to fight, do we?"

Uh, no, the boyfriend said dryly.

And laughing, Ali went down the steps, shaking hands as he went, climbed into his waiting car, and sped off into the warm spring night. Alas, no cameras were involved.

The second time I met Ali was as a journalist, when I was doing a profile of his best friend, Howard Bingham, for the Los Angeles Times.

He was staying at a posh Beverly Hills hotel, and in the living room of his suite, and spoke to me as Lonnie watched their 3-year-old son, Assad, demolish a plate of spaghetti that could have served three adults. ("He has an appetite, all right," she said, looking at the huge preschooler fondly.)

"Why you here asking me questions about Howard?" he asked, pretending to be insulted. "Don't it seem like your paper should be doing a story on me?" he winked. In truth, he happily took time to talk about his friend's photographic skill at chronicling his life in and out of the ring. Then he showed off some of the magic tricks he loved. He was slowing down, but still in good shape.

The final time was in 1999, when Ali gave a lavish 60th-birthday party for Bingham. It was at the City Club, a civic membership organization perched on top of one of LA's tallest buildings. An interesting cross-section of both their friends filled the room. Some were household names, others friends from back before either of them was well-known. Ali, interestingly, hung back, watching people come up to congratulate his friend and share old stories.

He still looked good physically, but the Parkinson's was making itself felt. He talked slowly, and not much. His hands were starting to curl themselves inward. I don't remember if someone asked me to or if I just thought he might want company — he was standing by himself — but I walked over and told him I was the reporter who'd interviewed him a few years before for the profile of Howard. He took my hand and squeezed, and nodded. It sort of felt as if he was encouraging me to go on, so I just talked about random stuff that was going on — how long he and Howard had known each other, how their careers were linked. He nodded from time to time.

"Must be odd for you," I told him. "Normally the crowds are around you, but tonight it's all about Howard."

He dipped his head toward mine. "Tonight," he said in his soft tenor. Then he winked.

I knew exactly what he meant: This was Howard's party, but tomorrow, the world would revert to its normal order. And it would circle around Muhammad Ali. And would continue to, until the end of his life.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.