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An audience with The Greatest

Alex Trickett | 18:05 UK time, Thursday, 18 September 2008

I'll be honest, my greatest sporting dream came true in Louisville last night and it had little to do with golf.

I shook hands with Muhammad Ali and I haven't stopped smiling since.

For a brief second, I had in my hand, the right that dropped Sonny Liston and George Foreman and he had in his, the palm that conceded a penalty in an 8-2 defeat for UEA's 4th XI in Cardiff.

It wasn't a fair trade, but the occasion was not about what the champ could take from us. It was a surprisingly humble and informal welcome from Louisville's "Greatest" to all Ryder Cup visitors.

alicrowd438.jpgA mixed crowd of 300 or so, press and public, assembled in the sunshine in a stone-seated amphitheatre outside the Muhammad Ali Centre and lapped up every minute - Arsenal shirts, alongside Louisville shirts, alongside Kenny Perry autographed caps, alongside conservative-looking families dressed in their Sunday best. A curious bunch, but Ali has long been a unifying force.

Mayor Jerry Abramson (who has a touch of the George W's about him) was there and so too was the deputy first minister of Wales Ieuan Wyn Jones (the event strangely doubling as a Ryder Cup handover from Kentucky to 2010 hosts Wales before a ball has even been struck in anger). But clearly everyone was there for Ali.

I've since heard some say that the overwhelming sense they had was one of sadness.

But it wasn't that way for me.

It was uncomfortable seeing the most charismatic of all sportsmen so obviously dimmed by Parkinson's. But there were still flickers of the great entertainer, signs that he still enjoys holding court, particularly at the Muhammad Ali Center, which was created to inspire others via Ali's six core values: "respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and spirituality."

alilonnie438.jpg

Ali didn't address his people - his illness doesn't permit public speaking these days. But wife Lonnie, a polished performer herself, spoke for him, batting away lavish praise as she was introduced with the opener: "I don't believe my own press, it's what keeps me humble".

She later referred to her husband as someone "who definitely does believe his own press", prompting Ali to swirl his hand around his ear as if to say his wife was "cuckoo".

Cue laughter and relief all around. Ali may be a shadow of his former self, but he is still there. He's still playful and he retains unparalleled presence wherever he goes.

When the formalities were over, press and public alike converged around Ali's throne (keeping up with the informal tone, his throne for the evening was a green armchair - the kind you may have sat on at your granny's), in the same gentle but passionate way that a Catholic congregation might swarm around the Pope.

"We love you Ali" was shouted several times and hands offered from all corners.

One of them was mine and I can categorically state that I would not have acted in this way for another human being on the planet. The man is my ultimate sporting hero and I reached out not as press (that hat was thrown to one side for a few moments) but as a fan.

To which end, I fully sympathised with the Arsenal shirt who "pressed flesh" with Ali moments before me and peeled away saying: "That's it, I'll never wash this hand again." (I have subsequently washed for the record but there was a moment of hesitation at the tap).

aliglove438.jpg

Ali didn't disappoint anyone and incredibly, he stopped to sign a few autographs, each taking a full 20 seconds to complete in his slowed condition. He also got a big hug from an elderly devotee as he retired to safety, visibly exhausted by his 30-minute outing.

There are some around Valhalla who feel that the column inches devoted to Ali (a boxer after all), ahead of the world's premier golf event, are over the top.

I disagree.

Ali has long transcended sporting and cultural boundaries. He is Louisville's most famous person (arguably the world's) and its finest ambassador.

US captain Paul Azinger used the Louisville Lip to kickstart his team's final push to win back the Ryder Cup. "I've idolized Muhammad Ali all my life...when you walk in the Ali Center, it's about what-ifs and dreams. I thought that was an important message."

And on Thursday, the European team suddenly converged on the first fairway in a flotilla of golf carts for an audience with Ali.

Cue more happiness, more cheers and more wonder. The Ali effect had struck again.

With Ali away from Valhalla and the opening ceremony fast approaching, now is definitely the time for the golf.

But I will always remember my night with Ali.

He shook up the world and I shook his hand. It doesn't get much better than that.

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