One was big. Bigger than the ring that was actually a square. Bigger than his quotes that were poetry mixed with poison. Bigger than his puffy red gloves raised up in the sky as he stood over his fallen victims.
One was small. Smaller than his three brothers, who all went to college on sports scholarships. Smaller than the kids he grew up with, whose bodies weren’t slowed down by polio. Smaller than the frat brothers at college who named him the "Little Wizard."
Muhammad Ali died on Friday night at 74 years old, larger than life. He was known around the world, but not many knew him so well as Terry La Sorda, his personal magician.
Remember: This is Muhammad Ali we’re talking about. Of course he had a personal magician.
And that magician has a tale to tell — a story of how the greatest was also a humble, kind friend who strove to bring a little magic into people’s lives.
"He had this beautiful, childlike wonder," La Sorda said Sunday morning after Ali’s death. Over the past two years, La Sorda has told me about the "lucky time" when his life intersected with Ali; when the greatest boxer in the world, the Champ, the Louisville Lip, was the student of the Little Wizard.
Terry La Sorda is 61 years old now. He smiles and gestures widely. He throws his whole 5-foot-6 body into it. When he stands and walks, he rocks into a limp, though it doesn’t slow him down. He’s a happy man; he skips with what could be called glee. He’s healthy now, though his life has been a road walked slowly away from a disease that racked his body as a child, putting him in a wheelchair until he was 10 years old.
Ali walked the opposite path, all 6 feet, 3 inches and 200-plus pounds of him, at times a near-perfect athletic machine, dancing and spinning and jumping through life, until Parkinson’s disease ate away at his synapses.
But back when Ali was still a terror in the ring, in 1978, La Sorda was 23 years old. He was just out of college, performing magic in a mall in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, for a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, when a man walked up to him and said, "Muhammad would love to see these card tricks."
The man peeled three $100 bills off a stack from his pocket and told La Sorda, "Come with me tonight, and I’ll give you a few more." The man introduced himself as Jeremiah Shabazz, a minister in the Nation of Islam and a close confidant of Muhammad Ali.
That night, a bit incredulous that he was really going to meet the champ, La Sorda drove down a road with a sign that said, "Now entering the camp of the greatest."
That’s when the butterflies hit, La Sorda said. "Oh, crap, I am going to meet him."
Yes, he’s one of those La Sordas. His was a sports family. His second cousin, Tommy Lasorda, was a major-league baseball player who would one day be rather well-known for managing the Los Angeles Dodgers. His brothers, including his twin brother, all were sports stars in school.
But Terry La Sorda never had much of a chance on any playing field. In 1957, on a trip visiting his grandmother in Florida, 2-year-old La Sorda caught polio. Three years later, in 1960, La Sorda would get his first operation. There would be 13 more.
That same year, a brash 18-year-old called Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky, won a gold medal at the Olympics for boxing.
Clay would become Muhammad Ali, Vietnam protester, Muslim leader, civil rights fighter. He would win boxing titles and worldwide celebrity and make fans and enemies alike.
Meanwhile, La Sorda spent his childhood often in a bed, reading magic books, as he recovered from or prepared for his operations. Before one of those operations, in the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, La Sorda saw his first magic trick. A man came through the ward, dressed as a clown, and performed sleight-of-hand tricks, making coins appear and disappear. La Sorda, whose legs did not work, saw the possibility in his hands.
"If it’s done the way it’s meant to be done, the performer and the viewers disappear and all that’s left is the experience. I forgot why I was there. It was pure joy to be astonished by the act," La Sorda said.
When La Sorda walked into Ali’s log cabin in 1978, the boxer was sitting in his trunks and a robe, watching TV, looking bored. Ali had built a training camp in the woods in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, where he was living a spartan life, preparing for his next big fight. La Sorda was dressed in jeans, had long hair. He remembers Ali asking him, "Where's your top hat; where's your cape?"
Then Ali took La Sorda’s deck of cards and flung it across the room, teasing him that a magician should be able to do tricks with any old deck of cards.
La Sorda took the dare, opened Ali’s pack of cards, and asked Ali to pick a card, any card. Then he gave Ali the deck to put the card back in it without telling the magician where it went. Ali turned his huge back and shuffled the deck.
"He turned around saying ‘You’re never gonna find this card, you’re going to make a fool out of yourself!’" La Sorda recalled.
Then Ali looked up and saw his card dangling from La Sorda’s mouth. Ali dropped the deck in shock.
"The cards fell on the floor and I thought he was going to hit me," La Sorda said. "One of those huge fists would hit me. Then, suddenly, he’s on the ground, the robe all around him, picking up all the cards … [saying], ‘Put another one on me. I like that!’"
For the next two hours, the two men were nose to nose, as La Sorda performed one trick after the other.
La Sorda said that Ali told him that he had asked professional magicians in Las Vegas to teach him magic before, but no one took him seriously. That first night, Ali asked La Sorda who his manager was. La Sorda didn’t have a manager; he wasn’t a professional magician. La Sorda was, instead, an engineer, a burgeoning metallurgist, having first worked with steel when trying to fix a pair of broken polio braces when he was 13 years old.
Ali was surprised, and asked La Sorda how much he made as an engineer. He told him, and Ali said he would double it if he came to work with him, traveling and teaching him magic.
A few days later, La Sorda’s father drove up to the camp, concerned about what was happening with his son. La Sorda said his father walked in, and Ali walked up to him, hugged him, and said, "Terry's going to be like family to me. He'll be protected." La Sorda signed a contract the next day.
To be a magician, particularly a sleight-of-hand magician, you need to have three abilities: speed of hand, hand-eye coordination, and an ease with words. That last skill often goes unnoticed, but it’s elemental to the trick, the very substance of the distraction — and magic lives in the space created by distraction.
Ali, king of coordination in the ring, had the hand-eye part down pat. His hands had a lot of stiffness in the joints, though, from years of calcium deposits in his knuckles. Those hands, so graceful in a glove, were clumsy handling cards. But the slowness of Ali’s fingers was saved by the speed of his mouth. His words kept people’s eyes locked on his face, not on his hands. "He had the ability to invent a story to wrap around the trick," La Sorda said.
La Sorda taught Ali more than 30 tricks, mostly ones that depended on using psychological games to trick people, like the one where he would make people choose a card and put it back in a deck, then Ali would snap his finger and the card would appear upside down in the pack. It was a tough trick, La Sorda said, one that required a lot of practice.
"If you're serious about any art, you have to love to practice," La Sorda said. Ali would come to him some mornings and tell him he was up all night "studying that damn thing you taught me."
Some nights, though, Ali didn’t want to be a student, particularly before a big match. At this point, Ali was getting older; he had lost a few fights, grappling with a rebelling body that had done what it was told but now no longer followed the rules imposed by its master.
In New Orleans, two nights before Ali’s September 1978 match against Leon Spinks, he called La Sorda into his room. Ali had lost to Spinks seven months before, and there was pressure to see if the champ could regain the heavyweight title. "I don’t want to learn anything; I just want to see some magic," Ali told La Sorda.
La Sorda performed for him, trick after trick, letting Ali relax into childlike wonder.
After a year of traveling together, Ali helped La Sorda find an agent, the same agent as Siegfried and Roy, and get what most magicians could only dream of: a contract in Las Vegas at the Stardust Casino. "He did protect me like he promised my dad," La Sorda recalled.
But after four months in Vegas, La Sorda realized he wasn’t cut out for that life. He wanted to go back home to Pennsylvania, to return to metallurgy, and to build a quieter life.
He dreaded telling Ali, who had been so generous with him, who had pulled so many strings to get him the gig. He stressed himself out, but finally confessed when Ali was visiting him in Vegas. Ali was surprised, saying Vegas was the ultimate goal for a magician. But La Sorda said, "I’m not just a magician; I’m also an engineer."
Instead of getting angry, Ali congratulated him. "He only wanted me to be happy," La Sorda said.
La Sorda went home, away from the mayhem of boxing matches, the parties with John Travolta and Kris Kristofferson, and the day trips to the White House. But his friendship with Ali wasn’t over. For Christmas and New Year’s in 1980, Ali flew La Sorda to Los Angeles, telling him, "I need a refresher course on some of the things you taught me."
At the airport, a crowd had gathered at the gate: Ali had come to meet La Sorda in person. His big arms wrapped around La Sorda, picking him up in a bear hug. "This is my magic teacher!" he shouted.
The last time La Sorda saw Ali, it was 23 years later in Atlantic City. La Sorda tears up when he remembers the moment. He walked into Ali’s suite and saw the big man struggle to get off the couch, as the great athlete's vigor succumbed to Parkinson’s disease. Ali wrapped his arms around La Sorda, but he could no longer pick him up.
Ali wanted to see some magic. La Sorda took a $1 bill from one of Ali’s bodyguards and folded it in half, then in quarters, then in eighths. La Sorda asked him, "You know how you can squeeze a piece of coal and turn it into a diamond?" La Sorda squeezed the dollar bill, and squeezed it some more, and then opened his hand, unfolded the bill, and showed the great boxer a $100 bill.
"You couldn’t teach me that one could you?" Ali asked.
Ali had continued to learn magic over the years, and he was eager to show his old teacher a new trick he had picked up: levitation. From the right angle, standing on his toes, Ali looked as if he actually floated on air.
These days, La Sorda works as an international group expert and metallurgist for Air Liquide. There’s a hint of alchemy to his job: He works with foundries to make stronger metals through chemical processes, such as removing oxygen to strengthen steel. He also still performs magic — on the floor of the foundries, at VA centers, at orphanages, and at hospitals like the one where he first learned magic years ago.
"That sense of wonder is so important," La Sorda says. "You have to bring people to the edge of reality, to let them see what reality really is. … And I think reality is an illusion. The only real things in life are the things you can’t touch: love, and our sense of wonder."
A few years ago, La Sorda performed the same trick for me as he did that first night for Ali. He asked me to pick a card from the deck. I pulled out a card, and I blocked it from his sight. I peeked at it. It was the Queen of Hearts. He told me to put it back in the deck and shuffle the deck. I was intent on my work, but nervous. I couldn’t shuffle the cards quite right, but I did my best. I presented the arranged deck back to the teacher. He pulled out a card and put it in my hand. I turned it over, waiting for that rush of surprise. It was the four of diamonds.
I felt embarrassed for the Little Wizard. After such talk, after such bravado, he messed up on his first act.
Then I looked up. The Queen of Hearts was dangling from his mouth.
He was giggling, eyes alight, thrilled at my shock.
"I love it every time," he said.
Melissa Bell is a co-founder of Vox.com and the VP of growth at Vox Media. She wishes she could box like Muhammad Ali.