In Ali's Corner
In his house's big front room, Lloyd Wells reclines on the unmade king-size bed like a raja, and you pull up a wooden stool beside him. It's eerie, talking to Wells in his house; you feel you're at the center of the Lloyd Wells Museum. Dog-eared photos and magazine clippings cover almost every inch of the walls: Wells with this-or-that celebrity, this-or-that beautiful woman, this-or-that "good friend" who happens to be Mike Tyson or Tina Turner or Jesse Jackson. Championship jackets lie in musty heaps; some are from the Super Bowl. Four TVs, of different sizes and vintages, face the king-size bed; the TV in the lower right-hand corner flickers and murmurs, a background to conversation. Three photos of pretty women are taped to the side of one TV; in black marker, Wells has labeled the pictures "Wife #1," "Wife #2" and "Wife #3." A nude pinup lies unceremoniously on the floor. "Long-time Girlfriend," says the black-marker scrawl.
There's a mirror on the ceiling, directly over the bed, and sometimes you peek up at Wells's reflection; somehow, in this room of a thousand Wells images, it seems too much to look at the man directly. Up in the mirror, you see a 72-year-old man with bifocals the size of fishbowls and long unruly wisps of hair. Friends used to call him "Dark Gable" because he was Clark Gable-handsome, but those days are long gone. "I don't fool with the girls no more," he says, matter-of-factly. "I don't do a lot of traveling no more. I'm used up. Wore out." Now, he says, he's cutting back on his business obligations to write his memoirs and organize his memorabilia.
There's a lot to organize. For 15 years, starting in the mid-'60s, Wells served as a scout for the Kansas City Chiefs -- the first black man, he says, ever to work in a pro team's front office. The league was integrating, and Wells, who'd organized black-college all-star games, served as the Chiefs' connection to black talent. Wells drove around the country in long flashy convertibles, painted either blood-red or yield-sign yellow -- Chiefs colors. Back in Houston, he painted the Fifth Ward house where he'd grown up yield-sign yellow, and made the trim blood-red. When he nailed boards across the windows, he painted those red, too.
There are lots of stories about Wells, and almost all of them, including the ones he tells himself, might or might not be true, but they paint a consistent portrait of the man. Friends called him "Judge" because he could pick winners; "character" and "honor" weren't Wells's criteria. One of those stories goes like this: The Chiefs were considering Johnny Rodgers, a Heisman Trophy-winner and convicted robber. Coach Hank Stram and Wells were watching a film of Rodgers's team, the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
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"If we take him, we'll have to build a jailhouse," said Stram.
On the screen, Rodgers scored on a winding punt return.
"Build it in the end zone," said Wells.
The Chiefs passed on Rodgers, but with Wells's other picks the team went to the Super Bowl twice. Wells loved to flash the humongous Super Bowl rings those games earned him, but even that team wasn't his biggest winner. In the early '60s, among his many enterprises, Wells ran a photography studio, located in the pulsing heart of the Third Ward, at the corner of Dowling and Elgin, underneath the Eldorado Ballroom. One day Howard Bingham, a photographer visiting from L.A., stopped into Wells's studio. Bingham had been following Cassius Clay, who was soon to become Muhammad Ali. The Greatest. The Champ.
"Man," Bingham said, "Clay sure would like to meet some of the pretty girls you got on the wall there."
"Why don't you tell him to come look at them?" said Wells.
Bingham dialed the fighter's number, then handed the phone to Wells. "Hey, punk," Wells said, "I know more pretty girls than anybody in the world."
Clay said, "I'm getting on the plane now."
At Hobby Airport, Wells met the plane with two pretty sisters fetchingly displayed in his long red convertible. The fighter, he says delicately, had a good time with both of them.
"You want more?" Wells asked.
"You can get more?"
"I'll drown you," Wells said. He knew how to pick a winner.
"I was Muhammad Ali's main man," says Wells, leaning back on the king-size bed. But the fact is, Ali had lots of main men; the Greatest prided himself on the size of his payroll. As many as 50 people would travel with him to a fight, and only a handful had official duties. "Nobody has this kind of crowd around him," bragged Ali. "Not even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley."
"Everybody wanted to be with Ali," remembers Wells. "He was the most famous black man in the world. The most publicized, the most knowledgeable, most likable. And he was a millionaire. He owned a plane. He'd say, "Got any money?' I'd say, "Yeah, I got the money you gave me the other night.' He'd say, "Take this,' and he'd hand me a roll of bills. I'd say, "I got some.' He'd say, "Take this, you might need it.' "
Sometimes Wells helped Ali train, exhorting him to run and do sit-ups. Sometimes Wells booked the hotel rooms, or announced Ali's presence in the ring, or urged fans to buy Ali souvenirs. But mainly Wells was just "with" Ali. In 1974 Wells was with Ali in Zaire, for the "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman. In '75 he was with Ali in the Philippines, for the "Thrilla in Manila" against Joe Frazier. And he was with Ali in Las Vegas in 1980 for the fight against Larry Holmes.
Ali's trainers and wives sometimes complained that the entourage was composed of moochers who sucked away Ali's money. Psychologically, though, the arrangement seemed fair enough. The entourage fed Ali's ego, and being with Ali fed the entourage's egos. They appeared in Ali's movies. They were quoted by sportswriters. They met celebrities, loads of celebrities, Donna Summer and Tina Turner and Richard Pryor and more movie stars than even Wells can remember. Because of Ali, they were important.
In Wells's hallway, surrounded by pictures of beautiful women in various states of undress, you see a photo of a young fighting-weight Ali asleep, tangled in sheets. After you pass the photo a couple of times, you realize that he's sleeping in Wells's front room, in the same king-size bed where Wells now reclines. More recently, Ali flew to Houston for Wells's birthday party in March.
Chris Rock flashes on the TV, in an ad for some comedy show. "I know that boy," says Wells. "He's been out to my house. He's famous." Jesse Jackson, "a good friend of mine," has also stopped by, he says; so has Mike Tyson.
Word gets around when you have visitors like that, and Wells has developed his own entourage -- young boxers who like to hang out at his house, guys from the neighborhood who hope to be invited to a celebrity-studded party. One of those guys, Wells says, broke into his house recently and stole his rings -- the Super Bowl rings, the championship-fight rings from Ali, the rings that Wells so loved to flash. Another of the guys, on a separate occasion, broke in and stole $1,300. Wells says he knew who'd committed both crimes because the guys stopped showing up, stopped hanging around, stopped acting like his friends.
Since those break-ins, Wells has ordered replacement rings from Joske's. He's also added locks and door braces, and no longer leaves his money lying around. But otherwise those crimes haven't changed his way of life; he doesn't hold them against the rest of his coterie, his entourage, his main men. "See," he says proudly, "all the guys hang around me because I know so many celebrities. I been in the movies. I got money. And I'm connected."
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