ONLY THE SWIMSUITS WERE MISSING

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Sometimes when men call stars from the vasty deep, they do come. Do come ...

As on a late summer's night in a large room on Central Park West in Manhattan, gathered over dinner, we had (among others) Muhammad Ali; The Great Gretzky; Pele; The Wizard of Westwood, John Wooden; Billie Jean King; Broadway Joe Namath; Dr. J.; Peggy Fleming; King Richard Petty; Greg Le Mond; Sugar Ray Leonard; Olga Korbut; Don King; Pete Rozelle; Roone Arledge; and the woman who owned Secretariat, all of them chosen by Sports Illustrated as the "most influential sports figures since 1954," the year Time Inc. unleashed SI on a baffled nation.

Another sports magazine? Well it turned out Henry Luce was right. The thing worked. Although I don't believe even the far-seeing Luce could have predicted the annual swimsuit issue.

And swimsuits were about the only thing lacking the other evening when SI took over the magnificent American Museum of Natural History to pat itself on the back and entertain the rest of us with its salute to sport and those 40 years. As emcee Bob Costas put it, starting off, "I know what you're all asking. What? No Ray Handley?"

They had everyone else.

I got there about 6:45 to be greeted by an SI salesman I know, Jack Bamburger, took a glass of chilled vin blanc and started taking notes. Just past the big lobby where they were serving cocktails was the Hall of African Mammals. That's where the TV crews were doing interviews, so I went in there to amuse myself goggling at Sugar Ray Leonard and Fay Vincent, Don King, and Julius Erving, and Joe Namath, who informed me his knees were pretty good and his daughters are now eight and three. Back in the lobby Bill Madden of the Daily News introduced me to Mrs. Marvin Miller. Coach Wooden was there being interviewed at a table and then Billie Jean King came along and Dick Schaap and his wife and PR man Joe Goldstein and the great Bud Greenspan.

When they called us in to dinner I got a refill and sort of positioned myself at a corner of the corridor so I could see them all go by and Costas came up, a good guy in a handsome camel's hair jacket and a gaudy Nicole Miller tie which he claimed they made him wear. Don Barr was there, the magazine's longtime publisher and then, with a small entourage and lots of paparazzi and a very pretty young woman leading the way, came Muhammad Ali.

He always wore clothes well and he looked trim and then the young woman grinned at us all and at the cameramen and said, "No more cameras." And, you know what, they stopped.

Peter Lund of CBS came in and then Reg Brack of Time Inc., with whom I was to sit, and Michael Fuchs of HBO, and there, lurking ahead of us at, fittingly, the Hall of Ocean Life (with a vast whale hung from the ceiling) was Don King. "Michael," he said to Fuchs, who was making every effort to dodge him, "you know I always liked you and we've got to sit down and ...

Mr. Fuchs, who runs a broken field very well, was now safely past Mr. King and inside the whale room. By 7:45 we were seated and at the Brack table were Carla Hills from the Bush administration and Jeanne Ashe, Arthur's widow, who may have been the most beautiful woman in the room.

Don Elliman got up, and Mark Mulvoy, the managing editor, got up and they rolled a bit of film then and up on the balcony at the head of the stairs I could see even the waiters freeze, standing there to watch, as they ran this great stuff of Carl Lewis and Aaron and Mantle and Mary Lou Retton and Vince Lombardi with his shark's grin and Shula and Dr. J. and Flutie's "Hail Mary" that beat Miami and Chris Evert in her teens and Larry Bird and Brett going bananas over the pine tar bat and Nolan Ryan throwing heat.

Then they introduced Gerry Levin who runs Time Warner and Reg Brack and Sid James, SI's first managing editor. And that was nice, to see Mr. James. And they plugged the special that would be on NBC the next night and we had dinner and Jule Campbell, who puts together the swimsuit issue every year, came by to say hello and then Costas was back up there.

Mr. Mulvoy said they began with 130 names for a final list of forty that Costas would read off. And as he did the first really big cheer was for Pele who stood at his table and waved and then for Arthur Ashe and at our table Jeanne stood. And there were cheers for those who weren't there, for Clemente, whose son Roberto Jr. stood. Cheers, too, for a dead horse and for Magic Johnson and Joe Montana and Palmer and Nicklaus and Pete Rose and Jim Brown and Air Jordan and, at the next table, Richard Petty, and across the room and still lovely, Peggy Fleming ...

And then Ali.

He had been, they told us, on the cover of SI 33 times and they ran footage of when he was young and beautiful, and at his table he stood, looking fine, and turned this way and that, waving slowly with his right, and then starting to sink back into his chair but the cheering came up again and once more he rose and waved, using only the right; maybe saving the left for a later round.

I'd left my dinner table to stand upstairs by then, with the waiters and the still photographers and a couple of film crews, so I could look down and see the spectacle, the huge whale hanging there and, at the tables below, even bigger game.

In the papers the next day, and on WFAN over the Mike & The Mad Dog show, they were all arguing. Why not Willie Mays? Why not Nancy Lopez or The Shoe? And in the magazine Mulvoy was explaining the rationale. But there's no need, really. Lists like these are as much fun for those who don't make the cut as those who do, creating talk and starting arguments over beers and over the air, with Vinnie from Queens calling in to bitch.

Outside a cab came along on Central Park West and I got in. Typical New York cabbie, guy named Awri Abra. "What's goin' on?" he said. "Big party. Sports Illustrated threw a party. Lots of stars."

"Yeah?" he said, unimpressed.

"Yeah. Ali was there."

"Muhammad Ali? In there?" He looked over his right shoulder at the museum as we pulled away, committing the moment to memory.

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