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Like millions of Americans growing up in the 1960s, author Davis Miller was inspired by Muhammad Ali. Although he wouldn't know it until years later, Ali helped Miller overcome depression and a series of personal tragedies throughout the writer's childhood.
As an adult, Miller worked up the courage to knock on Ali's door and say thanks. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship, as well as the foundation for stories including 1989's "My Dinner With Ali," and two books: 1997's "The Tao of Ali" and "Approaching Ali," released last year.
Here & Now's Robin Young remembers Muhammad Ali with Davis Miller, whose friendship with "The Greatest" illuminated the wisdom and compassion of Ali's life after boxing.
On how Davis Miller first discovered Muhammad Ali
"I was 11 and my mom had just died, unexpectedly at 32 of a kidney disease we didn't know she had. I was quite the mother's boy and blamed myself for her death, which kids do a lot. I quit eating, quit taking fluids and was admitted to the hospital a couple times. When I got out the second time, I was sitting sadly in front of my dad's little black and white television. Suddenly, I landed on a channel and there was this voice and this face, "I'm young. I'm handsome. I'm fast. I'm pretty. And I can't possibly be beat." And it lit me up. At least internally it brought me out of my depression. I lived vicariously through Ali through my otherwise tough adolescence. At 16 and 17 I was 4 foot 10, weighed 63 pounds. My high school name was 'Fetus.' So not good times. But I had this place inside of me no one could touch where I was the great Ali."
On Ali’s inspiration and how they first met
"I was called to the home office in Cincinnati and I thought I was getting a promotion, but instead I was losing my job. I was driving home from Cincinnati to Louisville and morose again. And coincidentally I drove past the home I knew to be Muhammad Ali's mother's house. And there was this block long, ivory coat Winnebago parked with license plate that said "The Greatest." And now who else could that be especially in Louisville but my childhood idol? So I worked up my courage and decided I've got to thank this guy for what he's meant to my life, and went up to knock on the door, and he opened the door. This was Easter weekend 1988. He was so huge, he had to lean under the frame of the doorway to see me and he stood there looking as big as God. Looking like some grand lighted house on a hill and just glowing."
"He transformed my life in immeasurable ways. I will love him every moment of my life."Davis Miller
"I knew this was seminal. It couldn't have felt more out of body. It was like being in love for the first time. By the time I left the house that evening I knew I had to write about it."
On Ali’s welcoming spirit
"That's the way he lived his life, right there. If you'd gone up to his door, two months ago even with him being late stage Parkinson's, and you had knocked on it like I did and if he were feeling healthy that day, it wouldn't have mattered who you were. He would have invited you and yours to spend the night. He was extraordinary, in that almost no matter what was going on in his personal life, he had the ability to step outside of himself and take nurturing interest in almost everyone around him.
On his son meeting Ali
"Of course Ali had saved me as this troubled kid, and for Muhammad's 50th birthday and my 40th birthday, we share a birthday, exactly 10 years apart. I wanted to take my own 6 year old son to meet him for the first time. So we drove from North Carolina where we lived, oh 1100 or 1200 miles up to Muhammad's home in Bering Springs, Michigan. We stayed there for three days, hanging out, Ali playing with my son, hiding behind furniture, jumping out, tickling, getting down on the floor, saying 'I'm the mummy. I'm Frankenstein. I'm gonna eat you up.' It was an amazing time.
As we get ready to leave, Ali walks us out to the car and it's snowing. I'm concerned that he might fall. This is 1992. He's approaching 20 years with Parkinson's disease. His balance isn't good. He's wearing slick soled street shoes and bare arms in a short sleeved shirt. He's carrying my son and places him in the back seat. There's a video camera in the back seat. And Ali sees it, and points to it which I know what he wants. So I reach to the back seat and get the video camera and turn it on. He picks Issac up again and holds him up right beside his head, Isaac's head side by side is also you see framed in a camera. Ali says, "This man will be the next champion. He will win the crown in 2020. Look at that face. 2020. I'll be the manager at 93. We will be the greatest of all time.' It was one of the most amazing moments of my life. Right after he did it, and I turned off the camera, Ali said both to Isaac and me, you will remember this when you're an old, old man."
On Ali’s influence on Davis’ life
"He transformed my life in immeasurable ways. I will love him every moment of my life."
By Davis Miller
In interviews and among friends, I’m often asked what I’ll remember most about Ali. Many of my memories are entirely personal and mean nothing to anyone besides me. There is one memory, though, that I believe has resonance for almost everyone.
It’s 1992, and my six-year-old son, Isaac, and I are in our old Volvo, getting ready to drive back to North Carolina after a long visit with Ali at his Berrien Springs farm. It’s snowing, but with little accumulation. Just enough to make the asphalt slippery. Ali has escorted us out to the car in bare shirt sleeves and slick-soled city shoes. As always, he hugs me, and this time as he does, I recognize that his touch goes through the me, past the me, to the everyone, to the everywhere.
I turn the key in the ignition. He closes our doors. There’s a video camera in the backseat: I grab it and push the power button. Ali sees the camera and opens Isaac’s door, snatching up my son. For a moment, as he holds Isaac for the camera, there’s paramount seriousness about Ali, an intensely conscious profundity in the eyes. He wants me (and, through the electronic lens, wants each of us) to know that the care he is giving my son—and that he’ll afford almost anyone’s child—is of the angels. Then he blinks and, as he pulls my son higher, holding him at face level, the moment has passed.
“This is the next champion,” Ali says. “This man will win the crown in 2020. Look at the face. Twenty-twenty. Just think about it: I will be the manager. I’ll be ninety-three. And we will be the greatest of that day, the greatest of all times.”
Ali places my laughing son back in his seat and points at the lens. “Watch my feet,” he says in the old voice, the thick one, the one of smoke and dreams. He turns his back and takes about ten shuffling steps. There’s a moment when the car engine stops, the wind doesn’t move, the air is not cold.
Looking over his left shoulder, Ali raises his arms perpendicular to his sides. And although I’ve seen this illusion many, many times, I’m still impressed as the most famous man in the world seemingly rises from the earth once more.
Excerpted from Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts by Davis Miller. Copyright © 2016 by Davis Miller. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
This story aired on June 8, 2016.
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