Just before he met the Beatles, became the heavyweight champion of the world and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, a boxer named Cassius Clay showed up at a basketball practice in 1964 and challenged Paul Silas to a game of one-on-one hoops.
Over the next two days, Silas and a few of his Creighton teammates would spend hours with Clay before and after their Feb. 10, 1964, game in Miami. Silas said in an interview Monday that Clay – who was on the precipice of history and would change his name to Ali less than a month later – was privately in doubt as to whether he would beat Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight championship in a fight to be held 15 days later.
“He told me he didn’t know whether he could beat Liston or not,” recalled Silas, who went on to become a 16-year NBA player and later head coach of both the Charlotte Hornets and the Charlotte Bobcats. “He sounded really unsure. Cassius – and that’s what he told us to call him then – said all he knew was he was going to give him a heck of a fight.”
In public, the boxer – who died Friday at the age of 74 – exhibited no such doubt. Clay called Liston a “big ugly bear” and made up a number of rhymes about the round in which he would knock Liston out (“If we wants to go to heaven, I’ll get him in seven”).
Clay was far from a worldwide icon at the time. A 7-1 underdog to Liston, he was scavenging for any publicity he could get. He was training in Miami for the championship fight that would be held at Miami Beach on Feb. 25, 1964, and apparently didn’t have much to do on Feb. 9.
With time on his hands and a local TV crew in tow – charged with filming whatever Clay did during the day – the boxer surprised Creighton’s basketball team by showing up at their practice.
“We had no idea he was coming,” said Silas, who still lives in the Charlotte area and whose son Stephen is a Hornets assistant. “I knew who he was from watching him in the Olympics (Clay had won a gold medal in 1960), but I didn’t know a lot about him besides that. And he didn’t know me at all.”
Clay was 22 at the time. Silas was 20. Always adept at staging his own PR, Clay asked someone standing courtside who Creighton’s best basketball player was. They pointed out Silas, a 6-foot-7 All-American who would average 18.5 points and 21.8 rebounds that season.
Clay walked right through the practice and approached Silas on the court.
Silas said Clay told him: “Look, I want to play you in basketball, OK? Those guys from TV are going to tape it. I want you to guard me, and I’m going to make a layup on you. But you can’t block it.”
Clay was perhaps the most talented boxer who ever lived, but Silas said he wasn’t very good at basketball.
“It took him awhile to make one,” Silas said. “He wasn’t a basketball player. I would put my hands up but not block it, and he had to shoot a few of them to make one, and then that was that.”
Tom Apke, Silas’ teammate at Creighton, witnessed the exhibition.
“Clay couldn’t play a lick,” said Apke, a former head coach at Appalachian State. “I always told people Silas had a better chance of beating Clay in the ring than Clay had of beating Paul one-on-one in basketball.”
‘Come here and put your hands up’
With the TV promotional done, Silas thought the boxer might be finished with them. Instead, Clay invited them to come over to the house where he was staying in Miami the next evening after Creighton’s game against a University of Miami team led by future NBA star Rick Barry.
“He told us he would send a car for us, and we could talk some more,” Silas said.
And that’s what happened. Creighton blitzed Miami 124-94 on Feb. 10, 1964. Then Silas and four teammates got into the car the boxer sent to their hotel and went to Clay’s house.
It was a simpler time. Silas said no one from the coaching staff went along, and there weren’t many instructions given to the players other than “Have a good time!”
“He gave us something to eat,” Silas said, “and then we sat around and talked. At one point, he looked at me and said, ‘Come here and put your hands up.’ ”
Clay studied Silas’ powerful frame and his large hands. “You know what?” Clay said. “You should be a fighter! Come on, let’s box a little!”
Silas waved off the idea.
“I told him, ‘You are out of your mind,’” Silas recalled. “But it was great. He took so much time with us, and he didn’t know us at all. I think he just loved people.”
It was only a week later – Feb. 18, 1964 – that Clay met The Beatles and staged with the band what would become some of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. On Feb. 25, Clay whipped Liston in Miami Beach when the heavyweight champion couldn’t answer the bell for the seventh round. Shortly after that life-changing victory, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
Silas followed Ali’s life and career closely after their meeting. Decades later, he saw Ali at a function and tried talking to him about that day in 1964. “He acted like he remembered,” Silas said, “but by then, he couldn’t say much about anything.”
Meeting Martin Luther King Jr.
Silas calls that Creighton road trip to Miami perhaps the most memorable of his life – and it wasn’t just because of his meeting with the man who became Muhammad Ali.
Clay had loaded the Creighton players up with autographs before they left, including a large cardboard placard with the boxer’s picture that he had signed for Silas.
Changing planes in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on the way back to the Creighton campus in Omaha, Neb., Silas ran into another of the century’s most iconic figures. He and his teammates spotted Martin Luther King Jr. in the airport terminal, approached him and chatted with King for several minutes.
“He found out we were in college, and he said, ‘That’s good – you have to get an education,’ ” Silas said. “He was so nice to all of us.”
Before he left, Silas also asked King for an autograph. He got King to sign the same cardboard placard the boxer had signed “Cassius Clay” only the day before.
Can you imagine? Those two autographs in the same place on a 1964 picture of “The Greatest”?
That’s all Silas, 72, can do about that placard now: Imagine how it used to look.
Why? Because during the 52 years that have passed, he lost it.
“I sure wish I had it now,” Silas said. “Dr. King and the man who became Muhammad Ali? My goodness. But I still have that memory. And I can still say that, even though it was a setup, Cassius Clay beat me in a game of one-on-one.”