Casems remember Muhammad Ali’s visits to Alcorn State
This was 1974. Betty Casem, wife of Hall of Fame football coach Marino Casem, was posing for a photo with Muhammad Ali in her living room at Alcorn State in Lorman.
“We had a mirror over our fireplace,” Mrs. Casem says. “Muhammad saw his reflection in the mirror and leaned over for a better view. He said, ‘Oh, I’m still pretty. Aren’t I pretty, Betty? I’m still so pretty.’”
Mrs. Casem, speaking by phone from her Baton Rouge home, laughs at the memory.
“He was just so funny,” she says. “He was so charming and kind.”
Ali’s visit to tiny Lorman was Marino Casem’s idea. Casem, the legendary Alcorn football coach and athletic director, wanted a special speaker for his athletic banquet in spring of 1974. So he reached out to Drew Bundini Brown, Ali’s friend and corner man.
“Ali wanted to come,” Marino Casem says. “He had heard about Alcorn and he wanted to see our campus.”
This was between Ali’s victory in the second fight with Joe Frazier in early 1974 and his victory over George Foreman that fall. Ali was at his pinnacle. He flew into Natchez on a private jet. Marino Casem picked him up and gave him the grand tour of Alcorn and southwest Mississippi.
Ali, says Casem, fell in love with the place.
“He loved the land here, he loved everything about it,” Casem said. “There was 100 acres across the road from Alcorn that he wanted to buy. The man wouldn’t sell it to him because he didn’t like Ali and didn’t like that he had changed his name.”
Casem told the guy to sell the land to him instead of Ali. The man refused.
Casem took Ali to see Port Gibson, the town U.S. Grant said was to beautiful to burn.
“We’re driving along and pulled up to a red light,” Casem says. “There’s a crowd of people outside a joint on the side of the road. Before I knew it, Ali was out of the door and in the middle of them. They loved him. And he had a ball himself. I’m telling you, Ali loved people.”
Ali also entertained at the athletic banquet, Casem says.
“He didn’t want to leave; he wanted to stay longer,” Casem continues. “His people said he needed to get back on schedule.”
Later in 1974, Casem received a call, waking him up in the middle of the night. This was after Ali had shocked the boxing world, defeating Foreman in the Phillipines.
“Ali was overseas somewhere,” Casem said. “He said he was recuperating from the fight. He said he was out on a yacht, and he just wanted to talk and see how things were going. To tell you the truth, I got the idea he was lonely.”
A year later, in the spring 1975, Ali returned to Alcorn.
“That was a surprise,” Casem says. “We weren’t expecting him back. Like I say, he really loved it at Alcorn.”
During the second visit, Ali spoke to youth groups.
“He was so sharp,” Casem says. “He could speak on any number of subjects. I was amazed at how he could be talking about anything and then go into rhyming. He would just make it up as he went along.”
Ali again visited the Casem home. His address book apparently dropped out of his pocket on the Casems’ couch his last night in Lorman, and Betty Casem didn’t find it until after he left.
She still has it.
“It’s funny, some of the stuff in it,” Betty Casem says. “There’s one name and number and out beside it Ali scribbled ‘smart white lawyer.’ And there’s another name and number and out beside that, Ali put, ‘in jail.’”
While they were seated at the head table at the Alcorn athletic banquet, Ali took the souvenir program, drew a picture of his house. He put the address of the house, signed it and gave the program to Betty.
She still has that, too.