For Davis Miller, March 31, 1988, was shaping up as one of the worst days of his adult life.
Miller, then 36, had moved from North Carolina to Lexington to work in a chain of video rental stores. He had been summoned to the corporate headquarters. His expectation was he was going to be promoted.
The corporate office instead told Miller he was being laid off.
"I had a mortgage, a car payment, two young kids and a wife," Miller said Wednesday. "I was wondering what was next? What was I going to do?"
What Miller did was improbable, bold, sort of desperate.
He went to Louisville and knocked on the door of Muhammad Ali.
"All I can tell you is, that day, it changed my life," Miller says. "Ali became my great friend and my great (writing) subject."
On Saturday, Miller, 63, will be in Frankfort signing his latest book, Approaching Ali, at the 34th annual Kentucky Book Fair. At 10 a.m., Miller will give a special presentation on Ali.
Miller's mother died when he was 11 years old. From that time, he felt a kinship with Ali. "I felt he'd saved my life in some sense by me living through him vicariously, me being this geeky, little, grief-struck kid after my mom died," he says.
When Miller moved to Kentucky for his job with the Video Village chain, a friend in Louisville told him where the boxing champion's mother lived.
So on the day Miller found out he was losing his job, he felt pulled toward the street address that he knew had a connection to Ali.
When he drove by Odessa Clay's house, "there was a block-long, ivory-colored Winnebago out front," Miller said.
The license plates said "The Greatest."
Nervous, Miller kept driving, headed back toward Lexington. Some miles down the road, he tightened his courage and thought "OK, I can do this.'"
He went back and knocked on the door of that Winnebago.
"(Ali) opened it up, and leaned up against the (door) frame looking as big as God," Miller said. "Even then he wasn't talking much (because of his Parkinson's condition), but he motioned me in."
Inside, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world performed magic tricks for a guy being laid off from a video store. The two got out on the front lawn of Ali's mother's house and shadow boxed.
Clay, Ali's mother, was fixing chili for supper for Ali and his brother, Rahman.
Ali invited Miller to stay and eat. At one point, Miller asked where the bathroom was and excused himself. When he tried to exit, try as he might, Miller could not get the door open.
He heard laughter from the other side of the door — which suddenly opened with ease.
"It was Ali," Miller said. "He had been holding the door to keep me from getting out."
An aspiring writer long before he was working in Lexington, Miller felt called to share his encounter with Ali almost immediately.
"I felt, it was a nearly religious experience for me being in the company of Ali," he says. "And I felt like I saw some things in him that no one had ever written about."
In 1989, Miller's My Dinner with Ali ran in The Courier-Journal Magazine. It was subsequently reprinted in Sport magazine. A decade later, as the 2000s were set to dawn, the writer David Halberstam selected the article for The Best American Sportswriting of the Century anthology.
"There's nothing unique about my experience with Ali except to me," Miller said. "He's done similar things for tens of thousands of people. Any time somebody would show up at his door with a young child, for instance, he radars in on children. He lights up around them in a way I've never seen in anybody else."
Through decades of friendship, Miller has observed that Ali seems more revered in the United States outside his home state of Kentucky. And he seems more revered in the world outside of the U.S. Miller attributes that to lingering controversy over Ali converting to Islam and, more so, his decision not to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War after being drafted.
"People in the U.S., a lot of us saw it as traitorous or cowardly or not doing his duty," Miller said. "People around the world saw it as taking courage to stand up against the U.S. government and say 'No, I think this is wrong.'"
Miller says the Ali he knows has his foibles but has a remarkable heart for others.
"He loves people," Miller said. "I don't want this to sound smarmy, but he is the single most generous human being I've ever seen. I've seen him, traveling with him, I've seen him pick up terminally ill children with communicable diseases and pull them straight to his chest and hug and kiss them more tenderly than you sometimes imagine their own parents do.
"He's mostly confined to a wheelchair now. He gets up and exercises by walking early each day most days. Otherwise, he's in a wheelchair. But he still wants to be around people. That's what he loves."
Since their first meeting in the boxer's Winnebago, Miller has written extensively on Ali. He helped compose an opera, also called Approaching Ali, that opened two years ago at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Miller expects the book Approaching Ali to be his last on the 73-year-old Ali.
"I don't know that I am looking for closure — my agent said this is closure," Miller says. "I want this book to be a major part of Ali's legacy. And I don't want to write about him anymore. I just want to be his friend."