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Muhammad Ali's Death Brings Fond Memories For PressBox's Gary Stein

June 15, 2016
A large part of what we love about sports are the memories we hold so near and dear to our hearts. 

There are many lifelong Baltimore football fans who can recite chapter and verse about a trip to Westminster, Md., for a Colts practice that ended with them getting an autograph or a picture with Johnny Unitas or Art Donovan. 

Or maybe there is a story of a brush with fame at the Golden Arm Restaurant or at Ameche's Drive-in with either Alan "The Horse" Ameche or eventually Gino Marchetti when he took over and started up the early Gino's franchise in town.

Quite often, before an O's home game, I'll grab a sandwich out at Boog's BBQ. I remain amazed at the volume of people Boog Powell touched when he was a star in the 1960s and 1970s with the Orioles. These people come out to eat and recount a story that takes them back to a time when they were younger and the world was much simpler. Retelling memories is part of the grand experience they have.

Personally, I am fond of recounting stories of my month-long stay at the Ted Williams Baseball Camp in Lakeville, Mass., in 1967, and how I rubbed elbows with "Teddy Ballgame."

Upon hearing the news of Muhammad Ali's passing June 3, I was immediately reminded of my favorite sports memory. And the irony is that it's not even my own memory. It's one my good friend, Gary Stein, has had for close to 40 years. Yes, this is the same Gary Stein who is my co-host on our weekly "Inside PressBox" TV show, which airs at 10:30 a.m. Sundays on WMAR.

In fact, I called Stein June 4 and asked him to be a guest on "The Bat Around," normally the baseball-only live-streaming show I do with Adam Gladstone Saturday mornings. Naturally, every sports show worth its salt was talking about Ali June 4.

Stein had heard the news about Ali's death and was very willing to join us to recount the story he had shared with me nearly three decades ago.

Stein was born in Miami Beach, Fla., in 1961. He, along with his two brothers and one sister, was brought up in a middle-class Jewish section of Miami Beach.

His father, Joe, is 98 years old and is still living in Miami Beach. He used to own a neighborhood grocery store on Sixth Street and Washington Avenue in Miami Beach. The gym Ali was famous for working out at in Miami Beach was located at Fifth Street and Washington -- just a block away from Joe Stein's Thrifty's Super Market.

The 5th Street Gym was on the top floor of a building that housed a Rexall Pharmacy on the first floor, and 25 steps up was the dingy and nondescript gym where "The Greatest" trained for large chunks of his 21-year pro career.

As Stein told me the story so many moons ago, Ali used to live in a place he owned in the Octagon Towers, which was across the street from the Miami Beach Convention Center (which, ironically, was the site of then-Cassius Clay's first heavyweight championship win versus Sonny Liston Feb. 25, 1964), and he would do his morning road work on a 25- to 30-minute run from his home to the 5th Street Gym. 

Ali would come into the back of Thrifty's at about 6:30 a.m. three to four days per week to get his fresh orange juice, and he would pick out other fresh produce to eat throughout the day.

The years, as Stein remembers, were 1976-78. He is certain of this, because those were his high school years. Thinking back on it, Stein would share his football exploits and other ways in which he kept his school work, his work and his sports all planned out. He even remembers Ali being impressed with how Stein kept so much organization.

This was a time period after Ali had fought perhaps his four most high-profiled fights: the first two versus Joe Frazier, in 1971 when "Smokin' Joe" won to retain the heavyweight title and then Ali's victory in a 1974 non-title bout; the "Rumble in the Jungle," in which Ali upset George Foreman Oct. 29, 1974 to again capture the heavyweight crown, and, of course, the third and final part of the Frazier-Ali trilogy, "The Thrilla in Manila," in which Ali successfully defended his title in 1975.

As I told Stein about my plans to write on this topic for my monthly column, he confided to me, that, at the time, he never really understood the significance of his special moments with perhaps the most iconic sports personality of the 20th century. 

What Stein remembers through the years was how physically imposing Ali was at 6-foot-3, 230-240 pounds with hands that were enormously big.

Ali had other places dotted across the U.S. where he trained for certain fights, but he would always come home to Miami Beach and the famous 5th Street Gym, where he was always overseen by trainer Angelo Dundee and the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco. 

And he'd always find his way into the back of Thrifty's for juice, produce and updates on how Stein and his brothers were doing.

I called Stein the other day to make sure I had all of the details of his story correct. At the end of the conversation, he told me how happy these memories make him.

"The saddest part is that in my dad's office, there were all kinds of pictures of Ali with us up on the walls," Stein said. "But when I went away to college and my dad closed the business, the pictures just got thrown away. We have no idea where any of them are today."

But the memories are still in Stein's head and obviously in his heart. And right now, with Ali's death so recent and the emotions so raw, these memories have been pushed to the forefront of his memory. Clearly, these are memories Stein owns. They bring a smile to his face and are quite clearly his favorite sports memories, too.

Issue 222: June 2016