My son started preschool wearing glasses and a patch over one eye. Hoping to make the black plastic patch look jaunty and not so Halloween pirate, I covered it with red gingham. But it soon took cowboy boots to lend my three-year-old the courage to show up there day after day.
One evening in Los Angeles, as we were cutting through the Century Plaza Hotel’s empty lower-level lobby on our way somewhere, a man’s hand shot out and snagged my bespectacled and patched little boy. The man in the chair was Muhammad Ali.
When it’s Muhammad Ali you’re seeing, it’s pretty much the way it’d probably be seeing Jesus. There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever about just who it is you’re seeing.
“Hey, champ,” Muhammad Ali said, gently bumping my son with his huge, smooth fist while holding him close in the crook of his other arm. “Doin’ okay, champ?”
Muhammad Ali did not catch my eye or nod or wink at me. The moment was so utterly between the two of them it was as if Muhammad Ali and my child were encapsulated in an iridescent bubble.
Muhammad Ali let go of him, and we walked on. Once we had gone a little way and were unto ourselves again, I knelt down eye-level with my son’s blue eye and gingham patch.
“Always, always remember what just happened here,” I said. “A great person named Muhammad Ali noticed you, bumped you with his famous fist, and called you Champ.”
My son is now thirty-seven, wears contact lenses, and has a three-year-old of his own. He has no memory of that moment in his very young life.
But I do. Muhammad Ali always said he was the greatest. And he was. His kindness to my little boy proved it.