(Above: Bud Collins Interviews Muhammad Ali, 1968.)
When the Times called and asked me to write something about Ali, I stuck close to the theme of personal fleeting encounters with Ali – once upon a time in America.
There was no time or space for two other impressions of Ali, so I am getting to them here, both from 1996.
The Anniversary. In March of 1996, I drove down to North Philadelphia to Joe Frazier’s gym, to talk about the 25th anniversary of their first fight in 1971. I knew Ali could no longer discuss that fight, but Smokin’ Joe could.
I found him smoldering, resentful over the way Ali had pulled racial attitudes on him, calling him a gorilla and mocking the way he spoke.
"I won that fight," Frazier said about 1971. "Guess I won the other two, also. I'm here talking to you, right?"
He was crowing about still being able to work out and drive a car and talk to me, quite intelligently, his speech slightly difficult to follow because he grew up in a coastal region of South Carolina where the African dialect of Gullah was an influence.
I could understand Smokin’ Joe just fine. He felt that Ali – sometimes he called him “Clay,” his birth or slave name – was duplicitous, manipulative, vicious.
Two of Frazier’s children were at the gym – Marvis, preacher/boxer/companion, and Jackie Frazier-Lyde, his athlete daughter, now a municipal judge. Both were a tribute to Joe, and to their mother, adults with brains and compassion. They told him, Dad, you have to get over it.
I knew Joe and Marvis to be good people. They had recently driven from Philly to Long Island in a major January snowstorm to attend the funeral of a dear friend, arriving at the synagogue after the service and staying a long time.
I felt for Smokin’ Joe, who passed in 2011. In the mirror of time, Ali was diminished by his treatment of Frazier.
The Olympic Torch. A bunch of reporters were sitting in the press tribune at the Olympic Stadium, speculating on who would have the honor of carrying the torch on its final segment – a famous athlete? A King or a Carter? An artistic symbol of the new South?
I don’t think any of us were prepared for the slow, deliberate trudge of the figure in white, one hand quivering, one hand carrying the torch up a narrow pathway.
When we realized who it was, we gasped and then we did something banned in press boxes – we stood and exchanged high fives. Muhammad Ali. Perfect.
Everybody understood the forces within that diminished figure – the draft, the conversion, the hyperbole, the beauty, the fights, the path from alien radical to stricken native son.
That happened on a Friday night, too late for the Saturday paper. A few hours later for the Sunday paper I wrote this short, personal, emotional tribute less to Ali himself than to the Atlanta organizers who, perhaps to my shock, totally got it. (With a major nudge from Dick Ebersol of NBC.)
* * *
(Finally, my thanks to so many people who have responded to my column in the Times. My praises to the professionals who produced and distributed the Ali tribute in about 170,000 copies of the final edition of the Saturday paper – including one on my doorstep.)
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.