March 12, 1984 12:00 PM

Muhammad Ali was gliding now, a jab here, a hook there, beguiling as ever, nimble and sure, working a place he has loved and ruled for years—the driver’s seat of a long, glistening convertible. Ahead were two toughs, menacing in their tight T-shirts, leaning against the side of a saloon. Rolling near them, Ali screamed, “Ay, nigger!”

The toughs whirled, fists clenched, ready to rumble—and then they spotted the former three-time heavyweight champion of the world. They whooped and clapped and called out, “A-leeee!”

“The most famous name on the earth,” Ali said, pulling into traffic, and he savored each word.

That wasn’t the way it had been only half an hour before. Ali had just finished lunch in the opulent dining room of his Los Angeles mansion. He lingered at the table, sipping hot tea, and when the subject turned to his life in retirement, he grew weary and distracted. And then, just like that, he fell asleep, his chin on his chest.

Nobody was home, and in the silence that surrounded him, it was hard to ignore the rumors about Ali’s scrambled brain. And though the truth was as elusive as the man, something was undeniably wrong. Once a roaring river of rhymes and metaphors, his speech was now a muddy delta of half-completed whisperings. The flashing eyes and the quick feet were a memory too, and what remained was a single, seemingly unanswerable question: Why?

Gently shaking Ali’s forearm, I said, softly, “Champ, I’ve got to get back to my hotel.”

Snapping awake, Ali insisted on driving me. But first, he wanted to show off his newest bus. It was parked out front, an immense, gleaming vehicle equipped with a kitchen, a bathroom and a king-size bed. “Don’t have much need for it anymore,” he said wistfully.

Ali’s first bus was a red contraption that creaked and swayed. He was Cassius Clay then, training in Miami Beach with Angelo Dundee. He’d drive to his own fights in it, barnstorming the country with his entourage, touching the people. “He was fast,” trainer Dundee recalled. “Scared the hell out of me, but he had those sharp reflexes. He could’ve been a great truck driver.”

The only thing Ali cherished more than that bus was his first car, a Cadillac the color of a ripe tomato. He cruised in the sun, making the pretty girls giggle and the old men shake their heads. “I’m the greatest,” he told them, and before long they came to believe him.

The cars changed in size and shape and color over the years, and now Ali was 41, tooling behind the wheel of a beige Rolls-Royce. He drove slowly enough to catch almost every red light, reaching out to the people, warmed by their startled smiles and cheers. “All that love,” he said. “Whewww! Makes a man humble, makes him know he’s got destiny.”

Moments later, Beverly Hills was also his. When a middle-aged jogger puffed past his car, Ali honked and bellowed, “Ay, chump! You think you faster than a Rolls-Royce?”

The jogger slapped his bald head. “That really you, champ?”

Ali bolted onto the sidewalk. “Who you think it is? My ghost?”

A station wagon then stopped in the middle of the street. A young couple got out and asked Ali to pose with their infant daughter. Ali eagerly agreed, nuzzling the baby’s cheek as the father clicked away. “Thanks, champ,” the father said. “You’re the greatest.”

As he pulled into the driveway of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Ali was on a roll, his speech again a soaring instrument. In this city of stars, he could still stop traffic. And when he did, he was transformed. All he needs is love, I thought. Maybe loneliness is the clue to the Ali mystery. He’s depressed. No matter what he says, he still misses the good old days—the mesmerizing poetry, the titanic struggles, the worshipful fans.

Ali will get over it, I told myself. Just give him a little time. Several hours later, though, over cocktails with friends, I suddenly recalled the cardboard sign taped to the windshield of the bus in front of his house. It read: FOR SALE.

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