Tom Sorensen

Sorensen Classic: On Muhammad Ali’s magical visit to Charlotte’s Duke Mansion in 2003

Editor’s note: This column originally published on Nov. 21, 2003.

Muhammad Ali turns his back to the room and attempts to levitate. It’s a good trick. On the third try, his feet look as if they simultaneously lift off Duke Mansion’s wooden floor.

Emboldened, Ali walks to a folding chair and announces he will make it rise.

Now, we all have seen Ali do amazing things. He beat the unbeatable Sonny Liston, beat the unbeatable George Foreman and won two of three from Joe Frazier. When he was young, there was magic in his hands.

Later, there was Parkinson’s disease. He discovered it 23 years ago when a finger on his left hand began to twitch as he was training to fight Larry Holmes.

Since then, Ali has become the world’s most famous Parkinson’s spokesman.

He was in Charlotte on Thursday to speak at a private luncheon, a fundraiser for Close to a Cure that is sponsored by the Cure’s Foundation of the Carolinas. Close to a Cure hopes to cure Parkinson’s in five years.

Research is performed at Duke University in Durham and at Emory University in Atlanta. But even the best minds at Duke and Emory will be unable to explain how Ali lifts a chair when he’s standing 5 feet away.

Ali waves his hand. We’re all quiet. We’re all mesmerized. We’re all believers.

And we’re all gullible.

“I’m fooling,” Ali says.

So he failed to lift the chair.

He lifts the room. He lifts every room he enters.

Two hours before the non-levitation, Ali gets out of a white Suburban and walks up six steps into the Duke Mansion. No matter how you thought you would react, you are helpless. You stare.

This is the most recognizable man in the world. He is 61 and still pretty, and he gets prettier the longer you’re around him. His skin is smooth, and his dark hair somehow has little or no gray.

Ali sometimes communicates with his hands, sometimes with a whisper and, when he feels strong, with the raspy, breathy voice of an ex-boxer.

His hands shake, and sometimes his entire body does. Those of us who remember his brilliance as a boxer, a big man who moved like a small one, feel as if we should run up and tell him this isn’t fair.

But we can’t. Despite the shaking, Ali is the calmest man in the room. He chooses not to be embarrassed. So why should we be?

A man gets a handshake. Another man, the one without the tie, gets a boxing pose.

As a camera clicks, Ali reaches over the head of Duke’s Dr. Warren Strittmatter and makes a “V” with two fingers. When it clicks again, Ali looks tough, clenching his teeth and grunting. Women usually get a hug and a kiss.

The residents of the Cherry neighborhood get more. Ali flew to Charlotte on Thursday morning from Benton Harbor, Mich., near his home in Berrien Springs. After throwing a few flurries for the folks working at the airport, he said he wanted to see black people.

En route to the Duke Mansion, the Ali entourage swung through Cherry and pulled over when they found black people. They invited the folks to walk to the SUV and talk to the champ.

When they finished, the Suburban stopped at a light near Midtown Square. In the car in the next lane was a woman talking on a cell phone. Ali asked for his window to be rolled down, and looked at her until she looked back. He smiled and waved.

The woman looked at Ali. She looked. She looked. And then she screamed.

Dr. Mark Stacy, director of the Movement Disorders Center at Duke, says Ali can still put on a show. But because of the energy required, his shows are infrequent. Yet he can’t stop. Muhammad Ali is not a victim.

“He’s the greatest heavyweight that ever lived,” says Stacy. “Nobody else with the disease has that experience. He says, ‘You’re not going to knock me down.’”

Ali is helped to his table at the fund-raiser. At this juncture, his medicine, which takes about 40 minutes to work, has not kicked in.

When he leaves the table after the luncheon, he walks independently and strong, and as he walks past me he loudly clicks his tongue near my ear – probably because my back is to him – the way a kid would. Just to make me jump. I do.

While funds are being raised, Ali draws on several napkins. On one, he draws the Thrilla in Manila, Ali versus Frazier, and uses dots to denote the thousands of fans around the ring. As others talk, he jabs, jabs, jabs the pen.

The napkin instantly becomes the most expensive in Charlotte history. Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates buys it for $10,000.

A small press conference is canceled because Ali’s voice is weak. But I am told I get one question, which makes it the most important I will ask in my life.

What do I ask? What would you ask?

“Since you’re a wise man, I need to ask a wise question,” I tell him, buying time. “What’s the secret to living a good life?”

Ali pauses for 15 seconds, then whispers in my ear, “Believe in God.”

When Ali returns to the Suburban for the flight home, it’s as if everybody’s favorite uncle is leaving the party. Kids, the children of local Cure board members, hug him. Adults shake his hand. Nobody leaves. We watch him in the passenger’s seat until the SUV takes him away. His work is not finished. Make the chair rise.

Duke’s Stacy had talked earlier about another ride with Ali. As Stacy drove, Ali autographed boxing cards. Sometimes Ali would stop to rip one in half.

Why’d you do that? Stacy asked.

“Because they weren’t good enough,” Ali said. “I want people to have the best of me.”

As a fan of Ali all my life, I am certain we did.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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