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June 9, 2016

The Sparkle Said, “I’m an Ali”

The Sparkle Said, “I’m an Ali”

THROWBACK THURSDAY – It was February of 1995 when the manager of my Chicago Twisters semi-pro team called me up and said that they were looking for a white female basketball player for a Gatorade Ad. She asked me if I was a SAG member and I didn’t know what she was talking about. It was a regional television advertisement, and not a national ad. I didn’t know the difference in pay until she told me. She said to show up downtown and hope for the best.

With the cameras on me, I stood there awkwardly not liking all the attention, even though I was dressed in my comfortable workout clothes. The people behind the camera asked me to stand on the X, look at the camera and state my name. They asked me to do some push-ups. When I stood up they said, “Put your back to the camera and then turn over your shoulder and give us your best game face.”

I tried it and they all said, “Oh, come on. That’s it?”

I smiled and said, “I think it’s my natural daily look that I give all the time, except when asked on the spot. Who asks for a game face? You just do it.” The cameraman raised his voice at me and said, “You’re a competitor. Nail this, and get the call back.” My manager called me later in the day and said they wanted to see me again. On the way out, a woman told me that Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Rasheda, was auditioning for the role for the other female athlete – a track runner. When I returned the next day, there was a beautiful woman sitting in the waiting area. She looked up at me and smiled with her perfect teeth and chiseled cheeks.

What struck me most was that familiar, playful sparkle in her eyes. “Oh my god,” I said to myself. “It’s Ali.”

Rasheda Ali was pleasant and helpful. She told me how she was hoping that they’d make the commercial national instead of regional. Two other athletes made the roles for the males – a football player and a basketball player. The title of the commercial, “This is a SEC Athlete.”

I was a Big Ten Player, a former player given that I’d graduated the previous June. And I’d yet to fully heal from the hurting Tennessee put on us my third year at Northwestern. But none of that mattered to any of the athletes. We were either just out of college or in need of some cash. I had just returned from playing overseas basketball, which was one long crawl to the finish and I should have picked up all the loose change I could have found along the way. I spent three months at home saving my money to go to the Rose Bowl to cheer on the Wildcats for January 1, 1996. My flight on the way home stopped in Chicago. I had $100 in cash. Dee Perrelli, our coach’s ex-wife, was kind enough to take me in. First month free, then I had to pay her rent. I also had to save up enough money to feed myself and lease a car. Walking to and from every odd job I could get in Evanston during January and February was not fun. I needed every bit of the money from the commercial. I think they gave us $500 up front, which got me one big step closer to leasing a car. We were invited to a warehouse downtown and it had no heat. The shoot took at least 12 hours. We huddled around a heater all day, and whenever they pulled us up to shoot, they sprayed us down with water to make it look like we were sweating. I was shaking by the end of the night, and it got so bad that we didn’t even feel like talking because they kept getting us up and down, warm clothes off, water all over our face, then run back to the heater, bundle up and repeat. A fever started in me that night, and I woke up the next day so sick.

Yet I had committed to attending a retreat in Wisconsin thanks to Father Ken, our head priest on campus. He’d asked me for years to attend, and I finally did it. I was so nervous about the retreat and sitting and talking about God all weekend that alone it was enough to make me want to fake an illness. Within 12 hours of the trip to a small town in Wisconsin, I was wheezing and sweating, something that had never happened to me before let alone in front of a group. I was trying to be quiet about it while everyone reflected on their relationship with Christ. I could not lie down without thinking I would stop breathing. Father Ken took me to the ER in the middle of the night. They gave me a breathing treatment and some meds for bronchitis. I told him I was so sorry about 25 times on the 90 minute ride back to the retreat where I slept for the remainder of it. I prayed to God for forgiveness. The whole attempt to go to the retreat was to find religion after years of not totally getting what I was born into – a family of Irish Catholics who frowned upon questions regarding how boring church was to me, and why women had limited roles. The trip to the ER somewhere in small town Wisconsin cost me around $700, and my insurance didn’t cover it. I felt it was best to hang on to one last thread of hope. Seeing that the retreat was a complete wash, I started praying that the commercial would go national just to get me out of the hole. (Not true – but you get the point.)

The commercial ran for two to three years or so. Had social media been big back then, the four athletes in the commercial would have stayed in touch. I am sure that if I saw Rasheda, she’d remember the commercial because of how miserable we all were by the end of the work day.

My brother, Ryan, was attending school in Florida around the time it aired. One night he was watching TV with his roommate and the commercial ran. He said to his roommate, “She looks familiar.”

Brian, his roommate, said, “That’s your sister, you jerk.”

Ryan then saw the commercial running all season and reported to me on it, which meant a consistent residual check of about $300 every few months or so would be heading my way.

I didn’t ask Rasheda about her dad at all. It all felt wrong to talk to her about such a topic. Plus I didn’t study Ali from a boxing perspective, or want to pass judgment on him. I’d written papers on the Vietnam War and honestly, I felt he had the right to do what he did.

All I knew for sure was that he was a beautiful man, even after he retired. And he had that playful sparkle one minute, total eye of the tiger game face the next. That’s what the best in sports can do – turn it on and off that quickly.

That day and night I know Rasheda and I spoke about her college days or just chatted with the guys, but by the end of the night, we were so bitter cold and hungry for the money and the hustle that we just had to focus on making it through. That is what we shared the most in common, and it was enough.

Here’s a link to the commercial, “This is a SEC Athlete.”