he scene: A
small motel room in downtown Los Angeles that costs, at monthly rates, $5.83 a
night. A little bit of afternoon light makes it through the curtains, falling
on a table
cloth etched with the words GOD—MOTHER—SON. On top of the television
stands a small statue of Buddha, its head hidden by a man's cap. Four packs of
playing cards and a Bible lie on the head of the bed; tin dinner plates are set
on a small table. Affixed to a mirror are a photograph of a young Muhammad Ali
and a leaflet for a play entitled Muhammad Ali Forever.
On the bed,
propped against a pillow, is a 57-year-old black man, slightly chubby, with
black woolly hair on the sides of his head and, on the top, a big bald spot
with a tiny tuft of hair growing at the very front. As he talks, his eyes go
wide and wild...then far away...then wet with tears.
His name is Drew
(Bundini) Brown, the ghetto poet who motivated Ali and maddened him, who
invented the phrase, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" and who
played bit parts in The Color Purple and Shaft; who licked Ali's mouthpiece
before sliding it in but never said a yes to him he didn't mean; who could
engage the champion in long discussions of nature and God and man, then lie in
the hotel pool before a fight and have his white woman, Easy, drop cherries
into his mouth; who, when he felt good, charged two $300 bottles of wine at
dinner to Ali's expense account and then made Ali laugh it off; and who, when
he felt bad, drank rum and shot bullets into the night sky at the mountain
training camp in Pennsylvania—a man stretched taut and twanging between the
fact that he was an animal and the fact that he was a spirit.
Oh, yes. A
visitor sits in a chair near the window of the motel room, but often Bundini
Brown talks as if he is ranting to a crowd on a street corner—or as if he is
The old master
painter from the faraway hills,
Who painted the violets and the daffodils,
Said the next champ gonna come from Louisville.
I made that up
'fore we was even champion. Things just exploded in my head back then. Guess
that's why Ali loved me. I could help him create new things. See, he never did
talk that much. People didn't know that about him, 'less'n they slept overnight
and caught him wakin' up. All that talkin' was just for the cameras and
writers, to build a crowd. He was quiet as can be, same as now. But now people
think he's not talkin' 'cause of the Parkinson's, which is a lie.
I remember when
he fought Jerry Quarry, after that long layoff. Going from the locker room to
the ring, my feet wasn't even touchin' the ground. I looked down and tried to
touch, but I couldn't get 'em to. Like I was walkin' into my past. Me and the
champ was so close, I'd think, "Get off the ropes"—and he'd get off the
ropes! Man, it made chill bumps run up my legs. We were in Manila, fightin'
Frazier. The champ came back to the corner crossin' his legs. Tenth or 11th
round, I forget. Angelo said, "Our boy is through." I said, "You're
goddam wrong, my baby ain't through!" I was deeply in love with him. Ali
tried to fire me every day, but how he gonna fire me when God gave me my job?
So I stood on the apron of the ring, and I said out loud, "God! If Joe
Frazier wins, his mother wins, his father wins, his kids win. Nobody else! But
if Muhammad lose—God!—we all lose. Little boys, men, women, black and white.
Muhammad lose, the world lose!"
And you know
what? The nigger got up fresh as a daisy. Everybody seen it! Got up fresh, man,
fresh! And beat up on Frazier so bad Frazier couldn't come out after the 14th
round! God put us together for a reason, and we shook up the world!
(He picks at a
thread on the bedspread.) People'd see us back then and say, "It's so nice
seein' y'all together." We made a lot of people happy. I was a soldier.
(His hands are shaking. He reaches down to the floor, pours a glass of rum as
his eyes begin to fill with tears.) I was happy then. It'd be good for Muhammad
if I could be with him again. Be good for me, too. Then I wouldn't drink as
much. By me being alone I drink a lot. Always did say I could motivate him out
of this sickness, if me and the champ was together. He needs the medical thing,
too, but he needs someone who truly loves him. If we were together again, more
of the God would come out of me. (His voice is almost inaudible.) Things used
to explode in my head.... I'm kind of runnin' out now....
He asked me to go
stay on the farm with him. (His eyes flare, he starts to shout.) What you goin'
to do, put me to pasture? I ain't no horse! I don't want no handouts! I got
plans! Big things gonna happen for me! I gotta get me a job, make some money,
take care of my own family 'fore I go with him. If I don't love my own babies,
how in hell I gonna love somebody else's?