How Muhammad Ali gave a doctor 'the gift of courage'

Story highlights

  • In 1997, Muhammad Ali agreed to lend his name to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix
  • Dr. Mark Stacy, the director from 1998 until 2003, has many memories of the time he shared with the champion

(CNN)Muhammad Ali didn't like air conditioning.

Muhammad Ali signed a WHO petition to support a global initiative to find a cure for Parkinsons in 2003, with Dr. Mark Stacy holding the document.
So when he traveled in a car through the streets of Phoenix one March day in 2001, he asked the man driving to roll down the windows.
Then he asked him to get in the far left lane.
    Parkinson's disease had taken its toll, and the heavyweight champion of the world had difficulty moving and speaking, but still, he had a plan.
    "At stoplights, he would reach out to the car next to us, and his arm was so long, he could tap on their window, and when they looked up, he'd say 'Hello from the greatest of all time!' Then the light would turn green, and we'd drive off," the driver remembers, laughing.
    "Muhammad just loved that," he said.
    The fun in the car was just one of many memorable moments in a relationship that lasted nearly two decades between Ali and the person behind the wheel: Dr. Mark Stacy, the director of the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix from 1998 until 2003.

    The gift of courage

    In 1997, the champion agreed to lend his name to the center, a part of the Barrow Neurological Institute.
    "At the dedication ceremony, I asked Mrs. Ali what we could do for them, and she said, 'Muhammad wants you to take care of everyone, regardless of their ability to pay,' " Stacy remembers.
    That was a tall order.
    Stacy's colleagues told him it wouldn't work; it was just too expensive to give that much free care.
    It was impossible, they said.
    But we know what Ali said about impossible: "Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."
    Stacy's colleagues advised him not to even mention the idea to the hospital's leadership; it would just alienate them.
    He ignored them.
    "That's one of the gifts Muhammad gave me: the gift of courage," Stacy said.
    At a meeting of the hospital's highest executives, the doctor announced he wanted the center to treat people for free if they couldn't pay.
    He could read the room. They were skeptical. Parkinson's care is expensive. They didn't see how it would work.
    "I said, 'This is a Catholic hospital, founded on the principle of providing care to people regardless of their ability to pay,' " the doctor remembers.
    A nun who was in the room stood up.
    "She said, 'That's exactly right,' " Stacy remembers.
    And the center started delivering free care to those who needed it -- dozens of people every year, Stacy said.
    Ali referred to those patients as "my people."
    And he took care of his people.
    When he did an advertising campaign for a shoe company, an executive asked whether there was anything they could do for him.
    "'Give shoes to my people,'" Stacy remembers him saying.
    "Your people?" the executive asked.
    "My people in Phoenix," the champion answered.
    "That's more than a million people," the confused executive responded.
    "No -- my people at the Muhammad Ali Center," he told him.
    The shoe company agreed, giving out two pairs of shoes a year to those who couldn't afford to pay for care.
    During one of his visits to the center, if Ali saw patients wearing those shoes, he'd give them a great big bear hug, Stacy remembers.
    Stacy, now a professor of neurology and vice dean for clinical research at Duke University School of Medicine, said his most touching memory of Ali is from an event at the center where patients lined up to meet the champion.
    "A grandmother in her late 50s or early 60s was walking through the line, and she said, 'Mr. Ali, thanks to you, I get to stay home and care for my grandson,' " he said.
    "She was at the end of the line, and he was getting tired, but as she was getting ready to walk past him, he pulled her back and gave her a hug, and the little grandson gave Muhammad a kiss on the cheek.
    "It was one of the most precious moments I've ever seen," Stacy recalls, tearing up at the memory.
    "When I woke up and heard the news that he'd passed away, I thought, 'I have so many happy memories with Muhammad and his family that I'll try to think of those,' " Stacy said.
    "But I have to admit that sharing some of these stories with you is difficult."

    'I want people to have the best of me'

    Stacy said his friendship with Ali and his family gave him countless gifts.
    First, the champion was a living example for how to care for others.
    Because of Ali, the center committed to accepting patients regardless of their ability to pay.
    But then another problem cropped up: Some patients couldn't afford transportation to the center.
    "I told Muhammad that 'we can take care of them, but we can't always get them here,' " Stacy said.
    The next year, Ali gave a "substantial donation" for cab fare.
    "I don't think it's right to tell you how much it was, but it was a lot of cab fare," he said.
    And for Ali, taking care of people meant doing it right.
    One day in 2000, Stacy was driving his son and Ali's wife and son from Tucson to Phoenix for the annual Celebrity Fight Night, which raised money in Ali's name.
    The boys were playing in the back, and Ali's wife was taking a nap. It was just the two men, and Ali took out a pack of baseball-style cards that he would give away at the event.
    His Parkinson's had progressed to the point where he couldn't sign them quickly enough at the event, so he signed them in the car.
    Suddenly, Stacy saw Ali tear a card in half and throw it up in the air, the pieces landing between them.
    "I didn't say anything because, hey, he's Muhammad Ali. He's the heavyweight champion of the world," Stacy said.
    Then it happened again. This time, Ali reached over and touched Stacy on the arm.
    "'That one wasn't good enough. I want people to have the best of me,'" Stacy remembers Ali saying.
    "It was so simple, but it was a life-defining moment for me. From that day forward, I tried to live up to those standards."
    Another one of Ali's gifts Stacy will always treasure is the gift of mental toughness.
    Join the conversation

    See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

    At the fundraiser that night, Stacy worried that Ali wouldn't be able to make it through the five-hour event.
    "At the end of the evening, he was exhausted, and I said to myself, 'Please, please, please don't ask him to come up on stage,' " he said. "But they did. And he would rally. When he stepped up on that stage, he became the heavyweight champion of the world again."
    Where did Ali get his strength to work so hard as Parkinson's ravaged his body? How did he not fall victim to depression or frustration? Either one would have been understandable.
    Some of his strength came from his Muslim faith, Stacy said. But the rest is a mystery.
    "To be the heavyweight champion of the world, the greatest boxer of all time, you have to have something that we don't understand -- or certainly people like me don't understand," he said.
    "I was lucky to have known him."