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That time Muhammad Ali recited an impromptu poem at a Maryland basketball event

Muhammad Ali shown at a hotel in April 1976 in a hotel in Maryland where he spoke at the Terps basketball team's end-of-seaosn banquet.
Muhammad Ali shown at a hotel in April 1976 in a hotel in Maryland where he spoke at the Terps basketball team's end-of-seaosn banquet. (Courtesy of Joseph Jaffa)

Muhammad Ali fought twice in Maryland toward the end of his legendary career, both times as the defending heavyweight champion at the Capital Centre in Landover.

Before the first bout, against Jimmy Young in April of 1976, Ali and his entourage shared a hotel with the Maryland basketball team and its annual post-season banquet.

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Russ Potts, then the athletic department's marketing director, received a telephone call from a member of Ali's entourage asking if the Terps could find another venue because the champ was using the hotel's ballroom for sparring.

Potts said he couldn't. The fighter's representative called again and Potts' answer hadn't changed. A third conversation led Potts to negotiate what turned into a memorable night for the Terps.

"The third time they asked, 'What would it take for you to give up the ball room?' I said, 'If you get Muhammad Ali to the banquet as a speaker, I'll give up the ballroom,'" Potts said.

A year after UCLA coach John Wooden was the guest speaker – other speakers had included Red Auerbach, Adolph Rupp and Oscar Robertson – Ali would be the speaker for the 1976 postseason banquet.

"What blew my mind was the way those players looked at Muhammad Ali like he was God Almighty," Potts said recently, before Ali's death Friday at age 74. "They were totally awestruck."

Ali came that night with a close friend, former middleweight boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was out of jail after New Jersey's Supreme Court overturned a murder charge.

Potts and others, including Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, cringed when Carter, not Ali, got up to speak to the audience of roughly 1,000 fans, friends and family members.

"Some people knew he had been up for murder," Driesell recalled Sunday. "He got up there and spoke about his case for about 45 minutes, how he was innocent, this and that. He talked a long time."

As some in the audience were getting up to leave, Ali finally took the mic. It was one of the few times in his life that Ali seemed speechless. He was up there less than a minute.

"He said, 'Lefty, I want to thank you and your team for having me, and congratulations on a great year,' and that's all he said and he walked off," Driesell said. "So I said, 'Hold up, hold up, Muhammad, we have a gift for you.'"

The gift was what Potts gave all the banquet speakers: a miniature grandfather clock with the Maryland logo -- this one inscribed with Ali's name. Driesell and others there that night will never forget what Ali said.

"It was this big clock, you had to hold it with two hands, and Ali looked at the clock and said, 'Hey Lefty, I like your class and I like your style, but your gift is so cheap that you won't see me for awhile,' and he walked off," Driesell said with a laugh.

Said Potts, "The place went crazy and gave him a standing ovation."

Driesell was stunned at how quickly Ali responded with a poem.

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"He didn't know we had a gift for him," Driesell said.

A couple nights later, the then 34-year-old Ali retained his heavyweight title by winning a unanimous 15-round decision against Young. A little over a year later, Ali returned to the Capital Centre and also won a unanimous decision against Alfredo Evangelista.

Driesell said that he always appreciated Ali's ability as a fighter.

Driesell, who became known for some of his own one-liners, also appreciated Ali's personality.

"He wasn't bashful," Driesell said.

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