Ali, Howard Cosell, Black Power & Me.
Olympics Black Power Salute
I’m a mild-mannered white guy, but occasionally I’ve found myself in a position where I could’ve had my head handed to me. Luckily I’m still with head, but let me explain how I almost lost that important part of my body.
The first time was during the Korean War; incoming shrapnel tore off a sizable hole in the roof of our mess hall, and I jumped under a table to save my ass. I banged up my knee in the process. I know, I know, that doesn’t sound too dangerous, but you had to be there. I applied for a purple heart for my injury, but was refused. However, I did get something out of the experience: an honorable discharge.
The next two times I found myself in dicey situations (although they weren’t nearly as dangerous as dodging shrapnel), was in line with my chosen profession. Let me explain. I once had one of the best jobs in the world. I was a TV sports producer and roamed the planet shooting events for Wide World of Sports. It doesn’t get better than that, but sometimes it got dangerous. I always wanted to get close to the action. In a Rams game, I was on the sidelines and Deacon Jones flattened me in an end-around sweep. I got a shoulder separation out of that one. Then I was creamed by an Olympic skier who lost it on a hairpin turn. The result was facial lacerations and cracked ribs.
But these were small bruises compared to what I faced when I was doing shows with Howard Cosell. He and I got mixed up in two very important civil rights moments. Both of them were scary.The first altercation occurred shortly after Cassius Clay joined the the nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali. That decision started a s**t storm in this country—white America was outraged. But Muhammad Ali was defiant. Howard had a remarkable symbiotic relationship with the champ, and could get an interview any time he wanted to—except once
We were in the midst of one of our many unpopular wars; this one was Vietnam. Ali was drafted but he defied the U.S. Government and said he had nothing against his brown brothers and wasn’t going. The stage was set for confrontation. The place for the confrontation was Dallas where Ali was due to be sworn into the military. At the time, Dallas was still suffering from the after effects of the Kennedy assassination. The Dallas cops were out to clean up their reputation, including the FBI, Texas rangers, and the Bureau of Tobacco and Firearms.
Ali arrived at the induction center with an entourage of black Muslim body guards, who had their own score to settle. There was also a mash up of newspaper reporters, photographers, and onlookers, in addition to hecklers, white supremacists, black panthers, dixiecrats and dixierats, anarchists, atheists, evangelicals and average Joe blows. It was a seething microcosm of America. Cosell wasn’t a physically brave guy. I may have been a little more so, but not much. When we arrived at the broiling scene, we didn’t have to look for law enforcement, they were on the lookout for us. A burly undercover cop who was naturally white, whispered a stream of epithets punctuated by the n word—enough said about that. But he issued us a little, pink lapel pin. He said that pin was important because it would mark us as journalists. Howard looked at him like he was nuts; he didn’t have to say that all of America knew him, it was the truth, but he took the pin with a sneer.
I also took the pin and not to appear chicken, put it in my pocket. BIG Mistake. When we surged toward the door of the Induction Center, I was grabbed from behind and spun to the floor. Two 6-foot-5-inch white guys asked me who I was and where was I going. When I told them I was a producer with Wide World of Sports they asked to see my pin. I looked in my pocket but it was gone. I called for Howard to corroborate my existence and credentials, but in the melee he was nowhere to be seen.
“Howard!” I screamed. “HOWARD COSELL!!!”
“Oveah heahya,” he finally said in his Brooklyn accent.
“Howard tell these guys who I am.”
Howard approached me. He had lost his toupee in the fracas. For a moment the undercover guys didn’t recognize him without it, but when he started speaking in that whiney Brooklyn accent, they knew who it was.
The cops hated Cosell, as did half of America, but they grudgingly gave us two more pins. More than ever, the crowd was boiling around us. The cops said we were on our own, but if there were problems, look for guys with blue pins. The place was a madhouse and we were supposed to look for guys wearing blue pins the size of a hat pin. But we put on our own pink pins and then Cosell informed me he wasn’t going to go on camera without his toupee. I dropped to my knees and searched around on the floor for the damn thing. A lot of people stepped on my hands but I finally found it. It has been kicked and crushed and looked like road kill, so I brushed it off. Howard looked at it dubiously and then put it on. I didn’t tell him it looked like a dead rat and we pressed forward .
Just as we got to the door to the room where Ali was going to refuse to enter the service, Cosell and I were waylaid by five, fierce black guys. They were dressed in black suits, starched white shirts, and wore black bow ties. They were the Black Muslim brotherhood.
“Where ya think your’re goin’?” the leader of the Muslims snarled.
“To inerveiw Ali,” Howard said.
“The champ ain’t talkin,” said the leader.
“What are ya tallin’ about I’m Howard.“
He didn’t get to finish the sentence. The five Black Muslims closed in and started pushing us away from the door. Howard bounced onto me or I bounced onto him, but the end result was the same. I was back- spread eagled on the floor. Somehow Howard was still standing, and he was screaming “Get me Bundini! Get me Drew Bundini!”
Drew Bundini Brown was Ali’s trusted friend and corner man who came to the rescue. “Let these guys in,” he ordered the Muslims, and they fell back and I got my hand on the door to the court room where Ali was refusing to raise his right hand. It was an iconic moment in the civil rights movement. I desperately wanted that shot, but I never got it.
The most famous sportscaster in America, and I bruised and disheveled were waylaid again. This time by the Texas National Guard. An entire company of them had arrived on the scene. Once more we were pushed back. Once more I landed on my ass. Howard helped me to my feet. I thought he was going to scream at the captain of the National Guard but he didn’t. He was confident that once Ali left the room, at the very least he would get his interview. It was an incorrect assumption. When Ali walked out of the room, he was under federal custody, and he and his custodians weren’t in a talkative mood. Howard and I tried to squirm past the feds that surrounded the champ, but the group barreled past us. The biggest guy in the guard stiff-armed me. I didn’t end up on the floor, but my head made a loud ringing sound as it bounced off the wall. Howard was unscathed but apoplectic that he hadn’t gotten a word with the champ, and I had to return to New York without an inch of footage.
Because of this unfortunate circumstance, Cosell and I made a pact. We swore that come hell or high water, nothing would ever stop us from getting an interview again. That promise was put to the test eight months later.
The year was 1968, the place was Mexico City, and the event was the Summer Olympics. Mexico City in a way was like Dallas. It was not yet narco heaven, but it suffered from a reputation of lawlessness. Mexico was the center on the world stage and they were determined to show that world what an orderly and law abiding place it was. To do this, they bussed all the homeless and criminally-inclined souls out of Mexcio City and stationed Federales (cops) who had a really mean reputation on every corner. The day before opening ceremonies, they killed over 200 students.
I personally had seen these poor students a few hours before they were ambushed in Tlatleloco Square. They had formed a huge group and marched in front of my hotel. Most of them had placed bandages over their mouths which graphically depicted how the government was stifling their opposition. My heart went out to them, and two hours later, over 200 of those brave souls were dead. There was not a word of it in the newspapers. The truth only came out years afterwards, and to this day, no one has been prosecuted for the murders.
I was too busy at the track and field, so I knew nothing about the massacre. World record after world record was being broken in the thin Mexico City air. America was battling Russia for medals, and America was cleaning up. In track and field; most of the cleaning up was being done by black athletes. The Afro-American athletes stood respectfully on the winner’s stand and some even went as far as to mouth the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but then the great black sprinters, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, appeared on the scene.
Smith was first and Carlos took third place in the 200 meter finals. Howard and I were in the remote truck watching, and suddenly, just as the strains of the national anthem started, they raised their black-gloved fists in the air and looked down at the ground. The symbolism was obvious, but the image on our ground camera which was recording the scene, suddenly went black. We still had an audio connection with the camera man who was yelling that the Federales had just usurped his camera.
Howard and I didn’t have to say we remembered the Ali fiasco. We immediately tried to get out the door with our camera man and his hand held. The door to our remote truck wouldn’t budge. I heard voices on the other side. The voices were speaking Spanish but it sounded ominous. I grabbed a screw driver from a technician and started unscrewing the knob from the inside, while Cosell kicked at the door. Finally it broke down and we were facing a phalanx of Federales. Some had their hands on their holsters and some were fingering their bayonets. Screw the pact that we would never back down, both Howard and I retreated back to the remote truck, and then I had one of my most brilliant ideas.
Allow me another brief digression. I’m not out to demean Mexico—I find it a rather fabulous place—but then as now, and like everybody who has ever done business there knows, in Mexico there is graft and a lot of it.
La Mordida, or the bribe that greases everything. I was the advance man on the Olympics. My job was to make sure ABC got the best coverage and the best times for events which coincided with prime time in the States. In order to do this, I became a bag man to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. The main recipient of the contents of my black bag was Senor Alphonse Renard. In Spanish, Renard means fox. Luckily he was lurking (as usual) in the nether regions of the remote truck awaiting his daily dose of mordida. I grabbed him and told him he had to get us through the Federales. He looked at me like I was crazy. I grabbed my black bag and showed him row upon row of neatly stacked twenties. He gritted his teeth and headed for the door. There was a showdown and much yelling about presidents of Mexico’s past and present and finally the Fox won out. The troops glumly fell back, and Howard, my camera man and I rushed the 100 or so yards to the winner’s platform. Luckily Carlos and Smith held their positions and we got in real tight on their faces. They showed no emotion. We pulled back and got them full frame with their gloves in the air. Howard started to speak but I stopped him mid sentence. The picture we got didn’t need any explanation. Don’t you agree?
Oh, and by the way, that was the only time in broadcast television that Howard Cosell was ever told to shut up.