By John P. Lopez
There were a few teachers along the way who helped guide me down this path. There were some athletes I admired who made me realize how much I love sports, writing about it and talking about it. There was family and my love for the written and spoken word.
But no one — no one — ignited my love for sports more than Muhammad Ali. He was my idol. I loved him. I wanted to be him. I simply would not have fallen in love with the games I played and then covered if not for The Greatest.
I even boxed for about five-years at the Boys Club, and of course I feigned every one of his moves. Including the Ali Shuffle. Once upon a time, I had it down pat.
That’s why I always will cherish the memory, but lament the bone-headed decision I made July 19, 1996.
It was Muhammad Ali and me. I had interviewed Champ twice before — once briefly at the Kentucky Derby and another time in a press-conference setting before a charity benefit in Houston. But never had I had a private audience with Champ, until July 19, 1996.
It was the night of Ali’s most iconic moment post-fighting career. It was the night of the Opening Ceremonies of the Altanta Olympic Games.
I sat in the Press Area of the grandstands, wondering like the rest of the world who the big surprise personality would be to light the cauldron for America’s Olympic Games. I gasped, right along with the rest of the world when my one, true hero emerged on the North end of Olympic Stadium, his eyes twinkling, his arms shaking from Parkinson’s Syndrome, as Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron.
Moments later, I rushed through the bleachers, as I wanted to get a front-row seat for the post-Ceremonies press conference. I popped into the Press Elevator as fast as I could and pressed the button for the ninth-floor of the stadium.
As the doors began to close, I heard a voice: “Hold the elevator, please.”
It was a police officer. With him were two other men in suits … and Muhammad Ali. So there we were, riding the elevator to the ninth-floor.
I turned to Ali and said something like, “That was unforgettable, Champ.”
He smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said, softly, “fun.”
It was at that moment that I felt so privileged to be right there, at that exact moment. I reached into my shirt pocket, where I had stuffed the Opening Ceremonies ticket. I began to pull it out, so I could ask my one, true hero to autograph it for me.
How cool would it have been to not just get Ali to autograph the Ceremonies ticket, but get him to sign it less than five-minutes after he provided one of the Olympic Games’ most indelible images, ever.
But then I looked down and saw my media credential. I realized media weren’t supposed to ask for autographs — even if it was from the one person you admired your entire life and was largely responsible for you even standing in that elevator, covering those Games.
I tucked the ticket back into my shirt pocket, exchanged a few other pleasantries with Champ and went on to the press conference.
I still have that ticket. It is unsigned. The memory remains priceless.
Interestingly, six years later in Salt Lake City at the Winter Games, I happened across Steven Spielberg in the press area moments after he helped carry the Olympic Flag. I asked him to sign my Opening Ceremonies ticket and he did, kindly telling me, “This is the first time I’ve ever signed a ticket.”
That Spielberg ticket may be worth something. I still have it, too. But it wasn’t Ali. It wasn’t The Greatest.
In a weird way, as much as I still kick myself for not getting the Champ’s autograph, and perhaps being the only person alive with an Opening Ceremonies ticket signed by Muhammad Ali, I’m kind of glad it worked out the way it did.
It’s not the tangible stuff that matters most. It’s the memories and the moments. And long before we met in that elevator, Champ helped guide me to a lifetime of unforgettable nights.
Thanks, Champ. You were The Greatest.