It was early. Especially for somebody who’d been a bartender and was working on the first job of his career that also required working the “second shift.” In the summer of 1979 I was living and working in Charleston, S.C. Just after 7am my phone rang, jolting me out of bed as only a ringing phone can. The deep voice of the News Director at Channel 2, “Specs” Munzell, my boss was pleasant and direct.
“I just got a call that Muhammad Ali was having breakfast at the Mills House downtown. You need to get down there. Now.”
I don’t look like much when I get out of bed, and with the night before still rolling around in my head, I threw some clothes on, brushed my teeth, barely combed my hair, grabbed the camera and recorder and walked out the front door in about 5 minutes flat.
“No way,” I kept saying to my self. “Ali, here in Charleston. At this hour? For what?” I made it out of Mt. Pleasant and over the Cooper River Bridge, absent of traffic and headed downtown.
The Mills House is an old, historic hotel in the center of downtown Charleston. It’s been run by Hyatt and Holiday Inn among others, but it remains a landmark in the city. The front entrance is impressive as is the lobby with the restaurant off to the left. Big white columns run floor to ceiling giving it a very big feel. With white tablecloths to the floor, it oozes elegance.
Overlooking the restaurant from the lobby landing, I realized something was amiss: it wasn’t open. For some reason, at the time the Mills House didn’t serve breakfast. It was dark but I shuffled around and leaned to the right, camera equipment in hand, only to see three men sitting at a table way in the back drinking coffee. I sat the equipment in a corner and walked into the restaurant. Muhammad Ali
Facing me at the table, luckily was a guy I recognized and perhaps more astonishingly, he looked up and recognized me.
With an easy wave he motioned me over to the table where the unmistakable silhouette of Muhammad Ali was facing the other way.
The guy I knew and the other, young man at the table both stood as I approached offering a welcoming handshake.
“Hi Sam, great to see you,” my “friend” at the table said. “Do you know Reggie?” he asked as he motioned to the young guy at the table. Reggie did look vaguely familiar so I said, “Sure” as we shook hands.
“And you’ve met the Champ,” my friend added.
Ali had stayed seated and turned his shoulders toward me, just getting his head around enough to see his face.
It was a bit surreal seeing Ali this close. He was one of my boyhood heroes and I’d read everything I could about him. But as he turned, he was so familiar it was as if I was running into somebody I’d known for years. The cut of his hair, his smooth features, the color of his skin all were exactly as I had always thought.
“Hey,” he said quietly as we shook hands. It wasn’t much of a handshake, but as I’ve learned over the years, boxers and football players don’t always have much of a handshake. It usually hurts too much. Nonetheless I stood there and stammered out a sentence trying to do my job.
“Champ, I’m Sam Kouvaris from Channel 2 here in town and I’ll be over there in the doorway so when you’re done if you would just stop on your way out and answer a couple of questions I’d really appreciate it.”
Ali eyed me for maybe a second or two and turned completely in his chair to face me before he said, “Have you eaten?”
I was so confused by his question that it barely even registered in my head. So I went back at it.
“No, but I’ll be over there by the door and if you . . .” which is when he cut me off by repeating. “Have you eaten?”
That’s a pretty simple question so this time I just said, “No sir.” Which is when he pulled out the chair next to his and said, “Sit down.”
It was my first lesson in dealing with wealthy and/or famous people that has served me well. When they make some kind of offer with a declarative statement, just do it. Like, “Get in my plane,” or “Take my car” or even at times, “Let me get the check,” just follow their lead and it usually leads to very interesting experiences.
So I sat down. Of course I knew the restaurant wasn’t open but Ali called the waiter over and said, “Sam wants to eat.” The waiter was eager to please so when he asked me what I might want (without the benefit of a menu) I ordered an omelet and some coffee.
Over the next hour or so, I sat at the table with the retired heavyweight champion of the world, one of my idols, drinking coffee, having breakfast and talking about everything you can think of: Religion, politics, women, sports, friendship, loyalty and just about everything else. Ali was disarming, fun, playful, serious and easy to talk to.
When it was time to go, we stood up and faced each other, I supposed to shake hands. Instead, Ali stepped back and flicked two left jabs within a half-inch of my nose. I reacted by raising my fists to protect myself and striking my version of a “boxers pose.” With that, Ali dropped his hands and said, “I’m not fighting you,” as seriously as you can imagine.
I relaxed and said, “Why not?”
“You’ve boxed,” the champ responded.
“Sure,” I replied.
He laughed and mimicked my pose saying, “Nobody puts their hands up like that and turns sideways to give nothing to hit when they haven’t boxed.”
With that we did shake hands, did the interview, and snapped one photo. As he left, he patted me on the back in an approving way I’ve never forgotten and walked out, never looking back.
(As an addendum to the story, Ali was in town to testify at a trial for Reggie as a character witness. Reggie had run afoul of the law on a drug charge and Ali had taken the red eye in for a court appearance that day. Reggie still went to jail, Ali said he wanted to be there because he and Reggie were friends.
In case you’re wondering, I’m 23 in this picture, Ali is 37)