"Yes, you can," said Clay. "Stand up, Wilma! Come on."
Wary of crowds, she began sinking lower, covering her face with her hands, trying to crawl inside the glove compartment, slowly disappearing in the cracks of the seat. It was no use. "Look!" Clay said, pointing down to her. "Here she is, down here! It's Wilma Rudolph. She is the greatest! And I'm Cassius Clay. I am the greatest! Come on, Wilma, stand up!"
There was no place to hide with Cassius Clay on Walnut Street. So she rose, reluctantly, for the gaping crowds. What would be the longest running circus in American sport was pushing off. "I saw him at the very beginning," says Rudolph. "It was bedlam. I always told him, 'You should be on stage.' "
On Walnut Street, of course, he already was. This was more than 31 years ago—in a different incarnation, as Muhammad Ali, he turns 50 on Jan. 17—and that rarest of all careers, spanning two decades and part of a third, was only beginning. On Oct. 29, 1960, in his first pro fight, he won a six-round decision from heavyweight Tunney Hunsaker, the police chief of Fayetteville, W.Va. Clay emerged unscathed and promptly crowned himself king. One of his cornermen for that fight was George King, a former amateur bantamweight from Louisville who first met the 12-year-old Clay when the youngster began hanging around trainer Fred Stoner's all-black boxing team at the Grace Community Center. With Rome and Hunsaker behind him, Clay was not a boy anymore.
"Where'd you get that name?" he asked King one day. "You ain't big enough to be a king. They ought to call you Johnson or somethin'. There's only one king."
"Who's that?" asked George.
"You're lookin' at him," Clay said.
Clay's days in Louisville were numbered. By the end of the year he had moved to Florida and was fighting out of Angelo Dundee's Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. Increasingly the town of his birth and boyhood became a place more of memory than of moment. Gone were the days when he skipped down the halls of Central High between classes, shadowboxing as he danced past knots of tittering students, stopping to throw a flurry that would fall just short of an incoming freshman's outgoing nose, then ducking into a washroom to box himself silly in front of a mirror. Gone was the laughter in the classrooms when Central's tall, scholarly principal, Atwood Wilson, would flip on the school intercom and, tugging on his suspenders, gravely intone his warning: "You act up, and I'm going to turn Cassius Clay on you." Gone were all those early mornings when young Clay raced the school bus for 20 blocks east down Chestnut Street, waving and grinning at the faces in the windows as he bounded past pedestrians scurrying to work.
"Why doesn't he ride to school like everybody else?" a sleepy-eyed young Socrates asked on the bus one day.
"He's crazy," replied one of Clay's classmates, Shirlee Lewis Smith. "He's as nutty as he can be."