I collect handshakes. Hank Aaron, Smokey Robinson, Buddy Guy, Sam Moore, David Halberstam, Bill Kunstler, Hubert Sumlin … Getting a photo, or god forbid a selfie, is not what matters most. It’s shaking the hand and saying thank you for making a difference in my life. Thanks for making me smile. Thanks for making me think. Thanks for being you.
I like to think that if I shake your hand, maybe some of the brilliance will rub off.
But there’s one handshake I didn’t get.
This was one winter night in 1978. Or maybe it was 1980 or 1981. I know it wasn’t 1979, because that was the winter we stayed home with our newborn. But whatever year it was, Linda and I were at JFK, having spent the previous week somewhere delightfully warm, and, with scores of others, we were hovering reluctantly around the baggage carousel, waiting for our bags to come down the chute and meander our way — all so we could find our car, go home, turn up the heat and go back to work the next morning, knowing that by the end of the next day, it would be like we never went anywhere at all.
I was carrying my Kodak Instamatic, because we’d been to the Caribbean, and I looked behind me, and standing at a counter was … well, the most famous person in the world. Standing there without a bodyguard, without an entourage, without anyone but his baby daughter, whom he held in his arms.
So I snapped a photo.
I would have liked to go over and ask to shake his hand, because … well, because if anyone made a difference in all our lives back then, it was he. He was the one who gave up everything in the prime of his life to be who he chose to be. He would be the one to define himself — not the government that wanted him in uniform, not the moneymen who wanted him to be keep his mouth shut and do as they said. Not the press, who liked their black men to behave as they felt black men should.
No. The most famous man in the world would define himself, because he wasn’t just great. He was The Greatest. He made medicine sick.
So I would have loved to go over and shake his hand, and I easily could have, since there was no security and he was standing right there, maybe 20 feet away. But I didn’t — and neither did hundreds of others who were there — because this was a private moment, and, frankly, a tender one. Just a tall, very handsome man — Ain’t I pretty? he used to say — standing alone, holding his little girl.
There were places in the world where they’d never heard of the president of the United States, or the premier of the Soviet Union, or the queen of England, or the Beatles or Elvis or Sinatra or Pele or even the Pope. But they knew Muhammad Ali. He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He was The Greatest. Of all time.
Rest in peace, Champ. I do so wish I’d shaken your hand. And I’m so glad that, when the opportunity was there, I didn’t. You gave everything to the world. On this occasion, you deserved to be left alone.
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