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The Groz: The day I met ‘The Greatest,’ Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali with trainer Bundini Brown in 1978, a year after granting an interview to a young Dave Grosby. (AP)

There are days in your life you will never forget. Sadly, most of them have to do with tragedy, but many are good days: the day you get married, the day your child is born and, in my case, the day I met Muhammad Ali.

It was early summer of 1977 and a 35-year-old Ali was training for his rematch with Leon Spinks when I got a phone call at WFAS, the radio station I was working at in White Plains, NY.

Muhammad Ali, who riveted the world as ‘The Greatest,’ dies at 74

At the time, I was 17 years old and working at the station where my dad was GM. I was also doing Iona college basketball, and this was during the heyday of Jim Valvano, so they were pretty popular in the NYC area. The phone call was from a stranger who said he enjoyed my Iona broadcasts and knew I was young and was offering an opportunity. His son was dealing with a disease, if memory, serves Cystic Fibrosis, and was going to be the poster child for the year.

Ali was the celebrity endorser and in those days you’d sell the poster to create awareness and raise some money. For reasons I’ve never understood, this man wanted to know if I would like to go with them to Ali’s famous Deer Lake, Penn., camp. I knew no media was allowed but the chance to meet Ali … I’d bring my tape recorder just in case.

Ali was my sports hero. I was 10 when he lost to Joe Frazier and remember crying my eyes out after the fight. I was fully aware of his social relevance and had always paid particular attention to his interaction with Howard Cosell, who was my favorite broadcaster. It was theater like no other before or since in the history of sports broadcasting.

After the several-hour drive we were ushered into his training cabin, which had a ring in the middle, and I froze as I saw Ali in the center of the ring sparring. There were only 20 or so people in the room, mostly family and friends I recognized like Bundini Brown and Angelo Dundee.

After 20 minutes the session ended and Ali was ushered off to an adjoining room. The man and his son were waved into the room and I stayed out in my seat. Ten minutes later I was ushered into the room as well, careful to hide my tape recorder since no media was supposed to be there. I stood by the door and didn’t see Ali, but there was a figure covered in towels on a couch. Suddenly, the towels started flying and there was the champ, bug-eyed, staring at me!

“I smell a reporter!” the famous voice bellowed, and my heart leaped to my throat.

Ali pointed at me, got up and rumbled ‘Come with me’ and headed out the door. I really was scared and had no idea what was next. Well, what was next was 40 of the most amazing minutes of my life.

I realized immediately that he was taking me on a tour of his facility. He stopped in front of several of the rocks he had other heavyweight champions names on and told stories about them. The tale about Rocky Marciano and their computer ‘fight’ stood out. We went into his quarters, where he talked about the women who made his food, and he showed me the famous life-sized photo of him as a 12-year-old boxer in Louisville.

Then he sat down and told me to turn my recorder on. I think I babbled out two or three questions to which he gave expansive answers. He patted me on the shoulder and said I did a good job and he’d be looking out for me in the future.

I was in a dream.

He didn’t have to do it. He just did. There are many stories like mine out there as well. Ali understood changing the world, but he also understood a great way to do it is one person at a time. He knew he was providing the people he interacted with memories for a lifetime.

The tape is long gone but that day 39 years ago still burns bright.

The day I met The Greatest.

Dave “The Groz” Grosby is Seattle’s longest running sports talk show host. He can be heard noon to 3 p.m. on 710 ESPN Seattle’s “Bob, Groz and Tom,” and is the voice of Seattle U basketball on AM 770 KTTH.