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The Day Sonny Liston Borrowed My Dad’s Bike

February 25, 2014

I really hope I have children someday, if only so my dad can tell them his awesome stories.  Like the time he caddied for Joe Louis at Denver’s City Park Golf Course.  And Louis tipped him a buck (“That man was a cheapskate!).  Or the time he walked out of a bathroom stall in a bar to see Chuck Berry washing his hands.  “No I didn’t shake his hand!  You don’t shake hands with someone after you go to the bathroom!”

The one I learned today, though, might be my favorite.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the epic fight between Sonny Liston and the man the world then knew as Cassius Clay.  For all the world knew, when the two men entered the ring on that February Miami night, the 22-year-old Clay was going to meet his demise.  He was going to get pummeled.  Destroyed.  Leveled.  There would be no Muhammad Ali, because Clay was going to be ended on February 25, 1964 at the behest of Liston.

Months before the fight, my 14-year-old dad was engaging in his normal day-to-day activities in Denver.  During those days, he oftentimes found himself at City Park Golf Course.  I think my dad was born a hustler, and at a golf course, he was amongst his kind.  He earned money caddying and shagging balls for Denver’s upper echelon.

After he made his keep, he’d hop on his bike, cruise around the park’s lake and if he made enough change, he’d stop and get a snow cone.  This day, he had enough in his pocket to pick up the snow cone.  As he handed his money over for his treat, he saw a big, shiny black Cadillac pull up.  Its driver, a large, athletic African-American man.  Its passenger, a beautiful, svelte blonde woman.  He thought nothing of it.

The man hopped out of the driver’s side, looked at my dad and said, “Hey, kid.  Can I ride your bike?”  And my dad said, “Sure, go ahead.”

This was the part of the story that raised a flag in my mind.  My dad taught me street smarts, largely because he was raised by the street.  While he doesn’t have a college education, he taught me how to play the game and in turn, how not to get played.  So I chimed in, “You let a complete stranger take your bike?!”

“Yea, obviously, Alicia.  I let him take my bike because I knew who he was.”

So, one day in 1964, Sonny Liston asked my dad to borrow his bike.  And he rode it around Denver’s City Park lake (“It took him about five minutes,” per my dad) and brought it back to my adolescent father, who in all honesty, was probably happily eating his snow cone and ogling at Liston’s date.  He said, “Thanks, kid,” hopped back in the Cadillac, shut the door and drove off.  “I was so stupid, that I didn’t even think to get his autograph.  It didn’t seem like a big deal,” my dad would remember 50-years later.

Seven rounds into that epic fight in Miami, the champion sat in his corner, unwilling to come back out to fight.  A kid, who would later be called the “World’s Greatest,” would come out of his to fight.  And that night, the world changed.  From everyone’s eyes, it was a big deal.  It was the 1960s’ David and Goliath story in a sense.  The toughest man in the world could be beaten.  And nonetheless, he could be beaten by a kid, who just hours before, had to be physically restrained because his nerves had gotten the best of him.

As a sportswriter who comes into contact with some of the greatest athletes in the world frequently, my dad’s story spoke volumes to me.  It told me, that even in the face of a brutal, barbaric champion, there was a childlike persona hiding behind the mask.  To think that at the height of his success, Liston was still curious enough and playful enough to ask a stranger boy for a joyride on his bike, puts into perspective the mindset of an athlete who knew he was about to engage in one of sports’ greatest battles.  That story–of perseverance, being able to accept defeat and of finding joy in small things even when great success is achieved–is one that someday, I hope my dad gets to tell my children about the day he let a boxer borrow his bicycle.

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