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October 13, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI

What: "The Muhammad Ali Reader," edited by Gerald Early.

Price: $26, The Ecco Press.

You probably don't remember it now--too much of sports has become disposable these days, and one record-breaking moment melts into another coaching change into another holdout into another crisis of the hour.

Then all of it is forgotten, and we all move on to the next microwaveable story.

You don't remember what one athlete, one man, can mean. Not just as a one-day controversy, or a red-haired neon nightmare, or a pinball-paced home run chase.

But as a living, fighting, growling, grinning piece of history.

Muhammad Ali, obviously was, and is, a complex man. And the 30 essays and three long Ali interviews in this book, culled from the four decades of his professional life, are a hodgepodge, alternately illuminating and exhausting.

I sure didn't read all 33 pieces, and I'm not sure anybody could over the span of a few weeks.

I've read a lot about Ali, and I think the best way to soak him in is to stick with one writer at a time. Ali is too powerful a presence to go hopping to-and-fro from perspective to perspective. It's too jarring, the subject too strong.

But that doesn't mean this book doesn't serve a steady purpose.

Cruise through Jimmy Cannon's and Robert Lipsyte's sharp 1970s profiles; take a look at Norman Mailer's long, airy meditation; read Ali's own buoyant (and often brilliant) words in a Playboy interview right after becoming champion; giggle through Hunter S. Thompson's hyperventilating tale; calmly measure the 1990s pieces by Davis Miller and David Maraniss.

Then think: Does any other athlete seem worthy of the attentions of the world's leading writers? Does any other American?

Ali was not only worthy of it, you read some of these weighty writers trying to capture the man and the moment and you realize a few of them were not worthy of him.

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