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The Best of Friends
Frank Deford
July 13, 1998
For 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham has traveled the globe, meeting princes and presidents, all thanks to his selfless devotion to a buddy who happens to be the most famous man in the world
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July 13, 1998

The Best Of Friends

For 35 years, photographer Howard Bingham has traveled the globe, meeting princes and presidents, all thanks to his selfless devotion to a buddy who happens to be the most famous man in the world

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Bingham looks after him. It is all right. He feels a sadness for what was, but a joy for what remains.

Recently, when Bingham was named Photographer of the Year by the Photographic Marketing Distribution Association, he put together a collection of his best work. George Fisher of Kodak says, "You see his pictures, you know he relates to his subjects in a special way." Bingham included a couple of photos that were precious to him. They were of Ennis Cosby, who had been murdered a few months earlier at age 27. Bingham dedicated the award to him.

The Cosbys have always been important to Bingham. Bill fractured the tacit color line in the still cameramen's union by bringing Bingham onto the set of his TV show in 1969—even though it meant also paying a white union shooter just to sit there. Over the years Bingham, who is divorced, has also grown close to Camille Cosby, who refers to the "special bond" she shares with him. Rarely does a day go by without their speaking to each other.

Despite their age difference, Bingham felt a particularly strong connection to Ennis. Camille and Bill are almost effortlessly accomplished; Ennis, though, had to deal with dyslexia, just as Howard had to contend with his stutter. When the young man was murdered, the Cosbys turned to Bingham to handle the arrangements concerning the body in Los Angeles and its transportation to western Massachusetts, where Ennis would be buried.

A couple of days later, on a bitter January morning at the Cosby farm, Bingham and a handful of other close friends gathered with the family. At the grave they stood in a circle and held hands while each, in turn, gave a eulogy. When it was Howard's time, he told of the Sunday he had taken Ennis to a Dolphins game in Miami, where he got the young man down on the sidelines. Later Ennis told him, "You know, Mr. Bingham, I like going to a game with you better than going with my father because you can get me down on the field."

In the midst of their terrible sorrow, all the Cosbys smiled through their tears.

"Howard's so giving, it's just unbelievable," says Richard Lapchick, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Annually, the CSSS gives out an award for excellence in sports journalism, but only twice has it honored the author of a sports book: Arthur Ashe in 1989 for A Hard Road to Glory, his study of the black American athlete, and Howard Bingham in 1994 for his work Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey.

Besides being a superb photographic essay, Bingham's book represented the one time that he tried to cash in on his relationship with Ali. "The amazing thing about Howard," says Neil Leifer, who took the photos for this article, "is that not only did he never abuse his access to Muhammad, but he helped other photographers gain access." Ali was delighted to help his old friend publicize the book. So it was agreed that he would go on The Arsenio Hall Show. Today the mere mention of the host's name makes every friend of Bingham's shake his head and mutter a curse. Says Lonnie Ali, "In all the time I've known Howard, I've seen him upset only twice. First was when his father died. Then, with Arsenio. I know he was trying not to cry. He just couldn't believe it."

"It" was this: Shortly after Ali agreed to appear on the show with Bingham to publicize the book, the producers began to request that only Ali appear. It was made clear to them that the only reason Ali was coming on was that Bingham would be there. So, reluctantly, Hall accepted the original agreement, and the two friends went to the theater together and waited in the green room. When Hall began the introduction, they were ushered behind a curtain. The host made a big deal out of welcoming someone very special, went to the curtain and pulled out Ali.

Bingham followed. After about two steps onstage, though, when Bingham was barely visible behind Hall and Ali, the host reached down to his belt buckle and made a discreet clutching gesture. It was a prearranged signal. Instantly, a goon appeared on either side of Howard, and while his face registered shock and incredulity, the men restrained him off-camera. The smugly satisfied Hall stepped forward, basking in the Champ's presence.

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