January 13, 1997 12:00 PM

MUHAMMAD ALI IS UP TO his old tricks, and he’s reeling you into his act. You’re at his 81-acre place in Berrien Springs, Mich., chatting in the kitchen with his buddy, Howard Bingham, when Ali, a noted prestidigitator, drifts into the room. “Look me in the eyes,” he rasps, making them as big as saucers. “People say I got powers.” Suddenly you hear a whirring noise by your ear. “Hear anything?” he asks.

“Yeah, sounds like a cricket,” you say, though you suspect it’s Bingham, who’s behind you rattling a newspaper.

Finally, not getting the reaction he wants, Ali tells you to hold out your hand and close your eyes. You feel something creep along your leg. You open your eyes to discover a huge roach in your palm. You almost fall out of the chair before you realize the bug is plastic. “Gotcha,” says Ali, grinning behind his masklike features.

Reports of Ali’s demise—particularly reports about his lack of mental acuity—have been greatly exaggerated. Ali, 55, has the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease: He experiences tremors, slowness of movement and a muscular rigidity that compromises his speech. But he is still Ali, the eternal child who has lately evolved into a kind of cultural saint. “Muhammad knows he has this illness for a reason,” says Lonnie, 40, his wife of nine years. “It’s not by chance. Parkinson’s disease has made him a more spiritual person. Muhammad believes God gave it to him to bring him to another level, to create another destiny.”

What that destiny might be is not yet apparent. But it might have been glimpsed last summer in Atlanta, when 3.5 billion people watched on TV as the three-time heavyweight champion slowly ascended the stadium steps and, with trembling hands, ignited the Olympic flame. “Like everyone else in that stadium, I was deeply moved,” says NBC-TV commentator Bob Costas. “Here’s a guy who was once the most alive of men—the most dynamic and beautiful athlete we’d ever known—and now, to an extent, he was imprisoned by Parkinson’s. His lighting that torch said something about the human spirit.”

No one was more moved by the spectacle, and the worldwide affirmation that followed it, than AH himself. After the ceremony that night, says Lonnie, “he just sat in a chair in his hotel room with the torch. He kept turning it in his hands and looking at it. Muhammad couldn’t believe the way people reacted to him. I think it gave him new courage. He knows now that people won’t slight his message because of his impairment.” And what is his message? “Love,” says Lonnie. “Muhammad is all about love.”

At various times in the past decade, Ali has met with President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II. He has mock-sparred with Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela, been greeted as visiting royalty by the Husseins, Jordan’s king and Iraq’s Saddam. And he makes his living, in part, by charging appearance fees—as much as $200,000—at conventions and industrial shows around the world.

But mostly his travels—he’s on the road 275 days a year—take him to charity benefits for organizations like UNICEF, Sisters of the Poor and Best Buddies, an organization that brings together the mentally impaired with those who are not. Wherever he is, he plunges in among the sick and the poor. “He goes into hospital wards all over the world,” says Howard Bingham. “The kids are disabled, and they have infectious diseases. He doesn’t care. He just wades right in and hugs them. He loves kids and just goes for the gusto.”

This afflicted man—who made his name by fighting and whose espousal of the Nation of Islam religion and refusal to enter the military draft during the Vietnam War made him a symbol of division—offers himself up now as a vehicle for worldwide healing. Profoundly religious, Ali increasingly sees his life in a spiritual context. Lonnie has to keep after her husband to get him to talk more. “He doesn’t speak,” she says, “because he doesn’t like the way he sounds and he can get what he wants just by pointing.” But religion is a subject Ali will talk about. He believes seriously in Heaven and Hell and that with each good deed he is working his way to an eternal reward.

“Everything I do,” says Ali, piecing his words together with great difficulty, “I say to myself, ‘Will God accept this?’ Sleep is a rehearsal for death. One day you wake up and it’s Judgment Day. So you do good deeds. I love going to hospitals. I love sick people. I don’t worry about disease. Allah will protect me. He always does.”

Ali biographer Tom Hauser (he is the author of Muhammad Ali: In Perspective and, with Ali, of a slim book of inspirational epigrams called Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding) tells of being in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Ali in 1990 and of going to the grand mosque. “It was regular Friday service,” says Hauser, “and maybe 5,000 worshippers were present. But word got out that Ali was there, and 200,000 people came down to see him. The government had to call out the army to get him out of there.”

At home in Berrien Springs, the Greatest, whose agonizingly palsied walk can quiet the crowd that has come to see him and whose merest gesture can set them to cheering, is the simplest of men. Though he has a pool and a pond and a view of the St. Joseph River, he lives at the end of a road lined with modest bungalows and ranch houses on an old farm where Al Capone used to lie low when the heat was on in Chicago. An intercom at the main gate to his property is used mainly by the neighborhood kids. “He’s the only man I know,” says Kim Forburger, Ali’s assistant, “where the kids come to the gate and say, ‘Can Muhammad come out and play?’ You can always tell when school is out in Berrien Springs.”

It has been a typical day at home for Ali. It started around 9 a.m. with Ali facing Mecca to say his prayers, a ritual he performs five times a day. For a couple of hours after breakfast he busied himself at the dining room table, signing his name on pamphlets that set out the basic tenets of Islam. He also signs a batch of 8-by 10-inch head shots, which he sells through a dealer for $100 each. But Ali, who has little interest in money, hands them out like cough drops to pretty much any fan who writes in and asks.

Often he lunches at the neighborhood McDonald’s, where the local kids lie in wait and the proprietors have designated an Ali corner. But today he has ordered in. So he is on hand to greet Joann Tree, who has driven down from Kalamazoo with her three daughters, one of whom is severely disabled and in a wheelchair.

Tree is on a mission: She is bringing cookies from her friend Mrs. Fields—the Mrs. Fields—whom Ali met during a recent trip to Utah. The girls, drawn by the opportunity to meet Ali, are also on hand. Ali does not disappoint. He hugs them all, signs photos and is at pains to answer their questions.

Doesn’t he get tired of writing his name? they want to know.

“No. Never. Most I ever signed in one day was 2,000.”

Why did he change his name from Cassius Clay back in the ’60s?

“Clay was my slave name. Ali means Most High, but Clay means dirt with mixed ingredients….”

Every day they come, as if on a pilgrimage, especially the children. Ali calls them “angels in exile.”

Lonnie was, is, Ali’s angel.

She grew up Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams across the street from the Clay family in Louisville, Ky. Cassius Clay Sr. made his living painting billboards; his wife, Odessa—both are deceased—worked as a domestic. When Lonnie met young Cassius—who would change his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964—she was 5½ and he was 20 and soon to be heavyweight champion of the world. “Those couple of times a year when Muhammad came home, he was not dealing with grownups,” says Lonnie, “but with the kids of the neighborhood. Muhammad had this great big bus, and he’d take us all over Louisville, and he’d shout out, ‘Who’s the Greatest?’ We’d all answer, ‘You are!’ He was a blast.”

By age 17, Lonnie says she was in love with him. It wasn’t just a schoolgirl crush. “I knew that I was supposed to be with him,” she says, “that, at the right time, our paths would cross and we’d end up together.”

That time came half a dozen years later, in the early ’80s. Ali’s 20-year professional boxing career was over by then, and Lonnie had heard the rumors that Ali was damaged, particularly after the savage beating he’d sustained in a 1980 title fight against Larry Holmes. “I met him one day for lunch in Louisville,” says Lonnie, “and he stumbled getting off the hotel elevator. Something was obviously wrong. Then a friend of his told me that Muhammad was sick and he needed somebody to take care of him or he was going to die.”

A Vanderbilt University graduate, Lonnie gave up her job as a sales rep at Kraft and flew to Los Angeles. For four years she ministered to Ali, while his third marriage, to Veronica Porche, wound down. “He was depressed,” says Lonnie. “It could have been the onset of Parkinson’s. He needed someone on his side.”

Parkinson’s syndrome—a condition that mimics Parkinson’s disease but could have been caused in Ali’s case by boxing-related damage to the brain—was diagnosed in the mid-’80s. But Ali’s current physician Dr. Mahlon DeLong, chair of neurology at Emory University in Atlanta, believes Ali has Parkinson’s disease—as do a million other Americans—largely because of the way his symptoms respond to medication. Ali takes Artane, which helps with tremor and muscular stiffness, and levodopa, a replacement for dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is missing in Parkinson’s disease. Dr. DeLong, who thinks the condition is unrelated to boxing, says Ali should have a normal life span. “Muhammad is a sharp individual,” he says. “With the new medicine he seems more alert, more active.”

Asaad Amin Ali may have something to do with this. Asaad, Ali’s ninth child, his first with Lonnie, is adopted. Five years ago, Lonnie’s sister Marilyn was asked by a friend of the biological mother’s to keep a newborn at her house in Louisville until he could be placed through adoption. One day Lonnie and Ali came to visit, and Lonnie and Marilyn went out for a few hours, leaving the infant with Ali and his mother. “When we got back,” says Lonnie, “Muhammad was holding that baby and wouldn’t let him go.”

Today the 5-year-old bears an uncanny resemblance to Ali. He also talks like the old Ali. Asked if he has any girlfriends, he looks up from his coloring book and says, without losing a beat, “As many as I can handle.”

The morning before you leave you join Ali for a last tete-a-tete. There are still questions you want to ask.

Does he have any regrets?

“My children,” he rasps. “I never got to raise them because I was always boxing and because of divorce.”

What about his illness? Does he ever get angry, frustrated?

“It’s a blessing. I always liked to chase the girls. Parkinson’s stops all that. Now I might have a chance to go to Heaven.”

But what about the boxing? Is he sorry he ever got into the ring?

“If I wasn’t a boxer, I wouldn’t be famous. If I wasn’t famous, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”

And what’s that?

“Travel the world and love people and spread the Word of God.”

You start to ask another question, but he’s still got boxing on the mind. He’s on his feet throwing imaginary punches in bunches.

“It would shock the world if I got into shape and came back. I want Holy-field! I want Holy field! To come back at 55, wouldn’t that be something?”

It would, indeed. But then, ask the millions who love and adore this man. They will tell you that Muhammad Ali has never really been away.

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