He had a role model. The most obnoxious spectator in sports history says he was inspired by the most beloved athlete of all time.
"Muhammad Ali made me realize that being outspoken can be a good thing," Robin Ficker says.
Not that their voices were always raised with equal purpose. Ali traveled the world speaking out for freedom. Ficker, well, he sat courtside and yelled at the likes of World B. Free.
Ficker definitely got Frank Layden and LaSalle Thompson to spit on him, Isiah Thomas to throw a shoe at him, and Charles Barkley to fly him to Phoenix to taunt Michael Jordan during the 1993 NBA Finals. "Hey, Michael how much do you want to bet on the game?" he yelled at Jordan, while carrying a copy of Michael and Me: Our Gambling Addiction, My Cry for Help!, a book that alleged M.J. was a compulsive gambler. Commissioner David Stern eventually laid down an edict that to this day prohibits fans from heckling visiting teams during timeouts. The Ficker Rule, it's unofficially called.
Today, Ficker's name appears on the ballot in the state Senate race for Maryland's 15th District. In its 2014 election guide, the Washington Post called Ficker, a lawyer who's been running for various offices for more than four decades, an "inveterate gadfly" while endorsing his latest opponent. A search of the paper's archives shows this is the Post's 56th story since October 1976 containing both "Robin Ficker" and "gadfly." Ficker tells me he knocked on 60,000 doors for this campaign.
He'll lose, if history is any guide. He always loses.
And he'll run again. He always runs again.
"I'm always doing something, not just being a couch potato," Ficker told the Post in 2008. "Sometimes things don't go smoothly, but I'm out there."
He's out there, all right. In fact, when you go through the Ficker file, it's hard not to admire the 71-year-old just for having been so out there so often and for so long. For better or worse, there'll never be another like him—a Zeligish figure popping up in various corners of our history, one of the great characters of our age. If life's for the retelling, he's got it sussed.
Among Ficker's b-sides: There's the cameo role he played in the Watergate scandal, when Ficker was an unwitting dirty trickster of the Nixon White House. And you know those antiquated blackout rules from the 1970s that the FCC recently chipped away at? Well, the transcripts of the 1972 Capitol Hill hearing that led to their promulgation reveal that Ficker was on the right side of history, and that fellow testifier and NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle wasn't. As a lawyer, Ficker fought a very liberal civil rights fight for a woman named Deborah Drudge, whose son would become famous for working the opposite side of the political spectrum. Ficker for a time took up heckling shotgun-wielding hunters who'd won a lottery to kill wildlife near his home. And since giving up yelling at big people, Ficker has stood up for lots of literal little people, including an 8-year-old Marylander who was unfairly punished for pretending to weaponize a Pop Tart.
But the most out-there tale in Ficker's anecdotal arsenal brings us back to that alleged role model of his. It turns out that he was more than a fan of Ali's. At a time when everybody on the planet wanted a piece of the transcendent fighter, Ficker got off his couch and got big chunks of the man. They weren't besties or confidantes, though a 1976 blurb about 'em from a newsletter at Ficker's workplace makes it seem so. But over a few years beginning in the mid-1970s, he and the champ worked out together, played cards, chopped wood, and had sleepovers in the mountains.
"When I'd visit him, he'd give me his bed," Ficker says. "He treated me better than any son. What a wonderful guy."
If anything about Ficker has been underplayed, it's his dalliances with Ali, who in his declining years has become an almost mythical figure. It's been 40 years since Ali knocked out George Foreman in the fight that sealed Ali's immortality. And not long after Ali-Foreman came, well, Ali-Ficker, the unlikeliest idol/worshiper relationship imaginable.
Photos or it didn't happen? He's got photos.
Most folks around Ficker's hometown, particularly those who've come across him professionally, tend to dismiss him as a self-aggrandizing nuisance; a lawyer friend of mine who regrets every encounter with Ficker reflexively refers to him as "that asshole." The climax of the aforementioned 2008 Post profile came when the reporter asked him if he could name one person who'd say something nice about him. Ficker couldn't.
But I recently asked Gene Kilroy—Ali's manager, and the most prominent and cogent surviving member of Ali's posse during his heyday—if he remembered Ficker.
"Great guy," Kilroy told me. "Robin Ficker is the real deal."
How awesome is that?
It is not possible to accurately describe Ali's place in the cosmos after the Foreman fight without sounding silly. There had never been an athlete, or possibly a human being, so globally renowned.
He came to D.C. in December 1974, a little over a month after he'd shocked the world yet again by KO'ing Foreman in Zaire. He'd been invited to separate ceremonies at the White House and the U.S. Capitol. The leaders of the same government that seven years earlier had gotten his championship stripped by declaring Ali a criminal for refusing military induction were now competing with each other for an audience with the boxer upon his reclaiming that title.
He knew they were groveling. Ali told placeholder President Gerald Ford that he was going after his job. While posing for photos with several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Ali announced, "Who would have thought six months ago that both Nixon and Foreman would be out of power?"
It wasn't just the power people who wanted to be linked with the champ. A small but telling example of his pull: TWA Airlines, now defunct but then one of the world's biggest carriers, used the chance to watch Ali in-flight as a primary marketing pitch.
Here's every word of copy from one of the full-page TWA ads that were running in D.C. dailies a month after the "Rumble in the Jungle":
TWA EXCLUSIVE. Right now you can see Muhammad Ali upset George Foreman on all TWA Movie flights to California. We're the only airline that will show the stunning Muhammad Ali-George Forman fight. We'll have it for 4 weeks. If you have a full fare ticket to California on another airline, don't worry. TWA will honor it. Just call your Travel Agent and ask for the flight with the fight.
Nothing at all about great service or timely takeoffs or cheap fares. Just having Ali on tape was enough to sell seats.
Harold Bell, a pioneering black sports talk show host in D.C. and the first guy to interview Ali, shiner and all, after his return to the U.S. from Zaire, says Ali was coming to his town a lot in the mid-1970s. Bell doubts the politicians were the allure. "He loved the city," Bell says. "I think it was the women." (Bell's planning a February release for a documentary based on his one-on-one with the renewed champ, which originally aired on the local NBC affiliate.)
Whatever Ali's obligations and desires, he was known for taking great care of his body. And Ficker got word that when the champ was in town, he liked to get in some road work really early in the morning in Greenbelt Park, a national park that was just a 10-minute drive from his home in Silver Spring, Md.
Ficker, who was one year younger than the fighter, had a couple things in common with Ali. They both had problems with the military, for one. Whereas Ali had been a conscientious objector, Ficker had been thrown out of West Point in his third year for what he described in 1991 as "temperamental displays." He said he'd wanted to stay, but stopped feeling bad about his expulsion when "all my classmates started coming back in body bags from Vietnam." In Ficker's 1972 run for the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing the troops home from Vietnam was the first plank in his platform.
And Ficker, like the champ, was a workout fetishist. By the mid-1970s, Ficker had already started his habit of running the steps at the University of Maryland's Cole Field House several times a week, a brutal routine he still follows.
So one mid-1970s morning when he knew Ali was in town—Ficker says he's not sure of the exact date but guesses it was around the time of the White House/Capitol fêtes—he got up before dawn and laced up a pair of combat boots from his West Point days, which he'd gotten out of storage because he knew Ali always wore combat boots during his training runs. (He wore the boots outside the ring "so that when he put on his boxing shoes it was like he could float," says Kilroy.) Then Ficker headed out to Greenbelt Park.
"And there he was, getting ready to run," says Ficker.
Ali didn't seem like someone who'd let folks get close to him at this time. In early December 1974, during his post-Rumble victory tour, he went on Parkinson, a BBC talk show. The interview went to hell as soon as host Michael Parkinson started asking Ali about his "friends." Ali interrupted Parkinson. "I don't have no friends," he said. Everybody around him, Ali went on, with increasing anger, just wants "my money or what they can get."
Even if he was looking for friends, Ali told Parkinson, white men need not apply. "Elijah Muhammad has been preaching that the white man of America, God taught him, is the blue-eyed, blond-headed devil. No good in him, no justice," he told Parkinson, with no apparent humor. "He is the devil! Elijah Muhammad preaches that, and I follow him."
In later years, Ficker would stare down Kevin Duckworth when the Portland center and possessor of the biggest body in the NBA for a time came charging behind the bench to confront him during a Bullets game. So maybe it's not surprising that Ficker says he wasn't nervous during his first encounter with The Greatest. Ali welcomed the gutsy stranger, decidedly devilish features and all, without missing a beat.
"I said, 'Hey, I wanna run with you,'" Ficker says. "He said, 'Come on.'"
Ali didn't get much more loquacious that morning. "We talked about running and staying in shape," Ficker says.
At this point, Ficker hadn't yet begun his sports heckling career. The Bullets had just moved down from Baltimore to the Capital Centre, a new arena in Largo, Md., built by team owner Abe Pollin for the 1973-74 season, and Ficker wouldn't get his season tickets behind the bench for another decade. But had Ali given him an opening, Ficker already would've had some stories to tell. His outspokenness and attention-getting bona fides had been well established in the D.C. area.
Some of Ficker's look-at-me deeds from this era were cringe-worthy. In 1971, for example, he was arrested for trespassing at a shopping mall after showing up in a Santa suit and handing out campaign literature to shoppers. (He got the charges dropped.) He made the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Star that same year for getting popped on a littering charge; he'd been posting campaign signs in trees and utility poles all over Montgomery County. Ficker, who was running for the congressional seat in Maryland's 8th District as a Democrat at that time, fought the charges, portraying himself as a freedom fighter and First Amendment warrior, not a litterbug. He was ultimately given a $10 fine, but by then his campaign slogan—"My Friend Ficker"—was known throughout the region. One political nemesis claimed that even very early in his political career, Ficker had "greater name recognition than the governor." But his renown didn't prevent him from losing in 1972, and his antics turned his own party against him.
In the spring of 1974, the local Democratic Party held a nominating convention for the 8th District seat, hoping to whittle down the roster of candidates and save money for the general election. Ficker was running again, and was one of three candidates entered; out of 300 ballots cast, he got just five votes. As the votes were tallied, though, Ficker further irritated his party by announcing that he was going to run in the primary no matter what sort of shellacking he took. The second-place finisher, a 28-year-old from Silver Spring named Lanny J. Davis, followed Ficker's lead and also declared for the primary, thereby rendering the whole convention process worthless.
Neither Davis nor Ficker—who was slamming Davis for pandering to Democratic Party donors decades before the rest of world took up the task—ended up winning the seat, and Ficker switched his party affiliation after the campaign. In 1978, Ficker ran as a Republican for a Maryland House of Delegates seat, and he won, which still stands as the only victory in Ficker's decades of vying for political office. But even that triumph didn't move the needle much on his reputation. (Maureen Dowd profiled Ficker in 1980 in the Washington Star and showed him the fangs she'd later use on national pols. "Often the butt of jokes," she wrote, "Ficker is denounced by many of his fellow delegates as a 'demagogue,' 'gadfly,' and 'publicity hound' who is 'crazy,' 'embarrassing,' 'unscrupulous' and 'ineffectual.'")
Yet, several of Ficker's vintage publicity-drawing endeavors were righteous. He too was once invited to the Hill, where he was hailed for fighting for the "little people." In October 1972, Ficker testified before the Senate Commerce Committee against blackouts. At the time, sports leagues typically blacked out every game within 75 miles of the home market, even sellouts. He had already filed a lawsuit against the NFL hoping to force the league to televise sold-out Redskins contests, and said he'd launched the anti-blackout fight "for the sake of shut ins, youngsters and service men." At the Hill hearing, he followed a passel of the most powerful sports people in the land, a veritable murderers' row of league commissioners: Pete Rozelle of the NFL, Walter Kennedy of the NBA, Bob Carson of the ABA, and Don Ruck of the NHL. And according to media accounts, Ficker acquitted himself quite well.
"The Little People, it turns out, do have their forum," read the Washington Star account of the hearing. Here was Ficker, officially the mouthpiece for the everyman.
Much to Ficker's reported delight, one committee member recommended strongly that Rozelle voluntarily end his league's home blackouts, lest the federal lawmakers be forced to put a blackout ban on the books. Rozelle didn't listen, and a year later, Public Law 93-107 was passed overwhelmingly, prohibiting the blackouts of any NFL game that was sold out 72 hours before kickoff. By the time the law expired on Dec. 31, 1975, Rozelle saw that TV wasn't such a bad thing, and agreed to keep the blackout ban in place voluntarily in perpetuity. Shut-ins, youngsters, and service men have been watching sold-out home games on TV ever since.
The next year, Ficker, who ran a law practice when not running for office or just plain running, sued Montgomery County in federal court to prevent the closing of Silver Spring Intermediate. The school had one of the higher minority populations in the district; Ficker's suit pointed out that the same school board that had recently voted to spend $1.5 million to renovate nearby Chevy Chase Elementary, described in news reports as "nearly all-white," had rejected a request for $30,000 to patch holes in roof of Silver Spring Intermediate's roof so it could remain viable. Alas, a judge discounted Ficker's discrimination allegations and upheld the closing.
Ficker also fought righteously for Deborah Drudge, a 31-year-old lawyer from Takoma Park, Md. She had only recently passed the bar exam, and had applied for a job with the Montgomery County Attorney's office, but felt her application wasn't taken seriously. Ficker filed a federal gender discrimination lawsuit against the county, alleging that her job interviewers were more interested "in her marital status and baby sitting arrangements" for her 6-year-old son than in her intellect or professional competence. According to newspaper reports about the case, the county had hired only white males for every non-clerical job in the county attorney's office since it opened in 1938.
"How can we expect enforcement of county laws against sex discrimination if the people charged with enforcement are discriminating?" Ficker told the Washington Star after filing the suit, which demanded the county diversify the attorney's office.
The county wasn't going to go down easy. ("I'm not going to be bulldozed into hiring women or blacks just on that basis unless the county hiring regulations are changed," railed County Attorney Richard S. McKernon.) But during discovery, Ficker says, his side uncovered that several county departments, including the county attorney's office, routinely rated female applicants "as to their physique and facial features."
Drudge "found out she was rated in the third quarter in both, or below average," he says. "I'd rate her in the top 1 percent in intelligence, though."
A Washington Star report on the suit indicated that the judge approved a settlement calling for the county to stop asking job applicants any questions concerning marital status or child care arrangements, and to revise the post-interview appraisal form "to eliminate ratings as to physique and facial features … for these ratings have sexual overtones that might be degrading to women."
Drudge was, by then, head of the legal committee of the county's chapter of the National Organization of Women. The six-year-old kid whose daycare arrangements inspired the suit? He grew up to be Matt Drudge. "He was a naughty boy," Ficker says.
Possibly the weirdest passage of Ficker's career around this time, though, involved a subject Ali could have related to—the dirty doings of the federal government.
In early 1972, Ficker got some headlines as head of a group called United Democrats for Kennedy. That group urged voters to write in Ted Kennedy's name during the Democratic primaries, even though Kennedy was not running and was still wholly unelectable nationally as a result of the death of Mary Jo Kopechne in his car in an accident on Chappaquiddick Island. Ficker's name was on a missive mailed to thousands of Democrats during the primary season, and he traveled to New Hampshire to stump for the non-candidate, who had publicly denounced the effort.
During the Watergate hearings, though, it came out that Ficker's group had been secretly organized and funded by the Committee to Re-Elect the President. The very same Nixon cronies (Jeb Magruder, Chuck Colson, Robert Haldeman, and John Mitchell among them) who planned the break-in of George McGovern's offices had personally targeted and hired Ficker to do a dastardly deed. The president had ordered his minions to come up with ways to peel off the support among New England Democrats for Sen. Edmund Muskie, who had come out ahead of Nixon in some electoral polls taken during his first term as president. Ficker told Watergate prosecutors he sincerely wanted Kennedy to run and had no idea who was fronting the funds; he was never indicted. His standing as an innocent stooge in the greatest political scandal in U.S. history was immortalized in the Senate's Watergate report, issued four months before the Rumble in the Jungle: "The write-in campaign for Senator Kennedy was totally financed by the Committee to Re-Elect the President," it read, "yet that information was never disclosed either to Mr. Ficker or to the public during the campaign."
In the memoir, An American Life: One Man's Road to Watergate, Nixon campaign operative Magruder asserted that Ficker "was persuaded to implement the Kennedy write-in scheme" by Colson, who you could say was the greatest dirty trickster of them all. Nixon's no-goodnicks, Magruder wrote, targeted Ficker as the perfect dupe for the job because of his "My Friend Ficker" poster-hanging stunt.
Ficker didn't get to talk about that or much of anything during his first run with Ali. The only thing they bonded over was their love of physical fitness. But when that first workout was over, Ficker says, Ali asked him to come by Deer Lake, his training facility in central Pennsylvania.
"He told me about a hill he had up there," Ficker says, "and he wanted to see if I could run up it."
Ficker says Ali, author of some of the most famous poems ever written (and also the shortest: "Me? Wheeee!"), even broke into verse to let Ficker know he was serious about the offer:
"He said, "I like your looks. I like your style. I'll give you a call in a little while,'" Ficker says.
Thomas Hauser, a top boxing writer and peerless Ali-o-phile, says anybody who knows Ali can believe he'd invite, well, anybody to accompany him anywhere.
"I never heard of Robin Ficker," says Hauser, author of the 1991 biography, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. "But it wouldn't surprise me if Ali invited a total stranger to camp. That's the way he was."
And anybody who knows Ficker would totally believe he'd jump at the invitation. Hell, his résumé shows he'll go even where he isn't invited—remember that time he got five of the 300 votes in his party's nominating convention but kept his congressional campaign going anyway? Well, there was no way he wasn't going to go to Ali's training camp.
Early in his pro career, Ali had been based in Miami, where he'd rented a gym to prepare for fights. But Kilroy says that right around the time the Supreme Court overturned Ali's convictions for refusing military service in 1971, the fighter told him he wanted to build a site of his own. He wanted something in the middle of nowhere, the exact opposite of his Miami situation, so it would be easier to just focus on getting ready to fight. Kilroy found a plot in Deer Lake, Pa., that fit the bill.
"In Miami, we were paying $10,000 a week to train in a gym that didn't even have showers, and that's for the heavyweight champion of the world," Kilroy says. "I found 10 acres in the mountains for $10,000, and we built cabins for $4,000 apiece."
Ali dubbed the compound "Fighter's Heaven."
The most desired man on the planet was not inaccessible at his rural getaway. I Am Ali, a new documentary released in conjunction with the Rumble in the Jungle anniversary, shows that Ali opened the gym portion of the facility to the public every afternoon for one hour. Any adult who paid $1 admission could watch him work out; kids got in free.
But those folks had to leave. Ficker says Ali told him he could stay as long as he wanted, whenever he wanted. "I'd show up for a weekend," he says, "and even stayed a week at a time sometimes." Ficker wasn't assigned any tasks, and felt the best way he could earn his room and board was to do what millions of folks would have paid to do: get up early every morning and run with the champ through the mountains.
"What amazed me was how he really could run for a big guy," Ficker says. "Back then I would train with various pro [football and basketball] players, but none of them could ever run like Ali. He could go easy for five miles in the mountains in those combat boots, which is a lot for a guy that size, and he was steady as could be."
And on his first visit, Ali challenged the fit Ficker to run up that hill they'd talked about back in Greenbelt Park. "It had to be at a 45-degree angle, and he told me he couldn't do it, but he wanted to see if I could," he says. "So he'd get in the car that followed us, and I'd run up it 10 times."
Most mornings, it was just him and Ali, Ficker says, though a car with members of Ali's entourage, led by bodyguard and sometime Chicago policeman Pat Patterson, usually trailed them. "Lots of times the guys following us would be shooting off handguns into the air," he says, though adding he never saw Ali touch a firearm.
After the morning run, they'd chop wood together, then head back to the cabin. Every day, Ficker says, he'd be reminded how his workout partner wasn't just another guy. "There were always lots of people waiting for him to come back, just strangers, showing up wanting something from him," Ficker says. "I'll never forget that. They all wanted something from him, either money, or for him to give them something they could take. And he'd go up and talk to them, and lots of times I think he was giving them what they were asking for. That was every day."
Ficker says Ali would always go get a massage from Luis Sarria, and then everybody in camp would eat whatever his personal chef, Lana Shabazz, cooked for them. Shabazz, who eventually got famous for her meat pies, met Ali in New York in 1962 and moved to Miami to be his full-time cook after the first Sonny Liston fight. She lived at Deer Lake full-time. "I still remember the fresh turnips," Ficker says. "She was an amazing cook, and he ate like a king."
Shabazz's job was to make sure Ali not only ate healthy, but that he followed a strict Muslim diet—and she took those roles seriously. A People Magazine profile of Ali in 1977 included a scene of him in England eating what was described as Stottie cake, a type of bread popular with the British that, the piece said, "was primed with ham, cheese and tomatoes."
Soon after, the magazine ran a letter to the editor from one "Lana Shabazz, Muhammad Ali Training Camp, Deer Lake, Pa.," asking for a correction: "Please let the people know that the Stottie cake Muhammad Ali ate in England did not have any ham in it at all. It only contained lettuce and tomatoes. This is a very bad mistake because he is a Muslim and doesn't eat pork."
The sparring partners changed with every visit, Ficker says, but other folks besides Shabazz, Sarria, Patterson, and Kilroy who were always on hand for all his years of trips to Deer Lake included the champ's younger brother, Rahman Ali, and the most famous hype man boxing has ever known, Bundini Brown.
Ficker says that during afternoon workouts, he'd "try to make a lot of noise," yelling encouragements at Ali in Bundiniesque fashion; sort of the opposite of what he'd yell at Barkley and Isiah and Jordan at the Capital Centre years later. All downtime at the camp was spent playing cards, Ficker says.
"Ali really took magic and card tricks seriously," Ficker says. "He'd bring in a guy there just to teach him card tricks. And he told me that he worried that his hands would get too damaged from fighting to do his sleight-of-hand, and he was very good at those tricks. That's where I learned to never play cards for money, because I saw that you just couldn't trust what you were seeing."
Ficker says sleep was taken seriously at Deer Lake, too. Come night time, Ficker says he usually figured he'd just take up a bunk in a spare cabin like the sparring partners and lower-level camp hands did. But on one visit, Ali invited him to his personal quarters, which he usually stayed in by himself while preparing for fights even though Veronica Porsche Ali and their children were often on the grounds.
And Ali told him the biggest log cabin, the one with the oversized bed and oversized TV, was all his.
"He moved out just for me," Ficker says. "I don't even know where he slept, to tell you the truth. Who would do that? He was so generous."
Ficker says that their discussions never got deep. He says Ali gave him no inside information about his opponents, and didn't divulge personal secrets, either.
"We just talked about running, staying fit, and how he wanted to keep working harder to be ready for the 15th round, some fights," he says. "Nothing special. We never talked about family."
Among the photos Ficker has from Deer Lake, however, is one of him with Ali as the fighter is lying in bed alongside his third wife, Veronica, and an infant whom Ficker identifies as Laila Ali. She was the youngest daughter of the champ, born in 1978, and the only one of Ali's nine children to fight professionally. (Laila's DNA lent a circus element to her career, highlighted by a 2001 pay-per-view match up against Joe Frazier's daughter, Jackie Frazier-Lyde, billed as Ali-Frazier IV.)
Outside of Deer Lake sparring sessions, Ficker saw Ali fight only twice: against Jimmy Young and Alfredo Evangelista, both lackluster outings at the Capital Centre. That's the same arena where Ficker would later find infamy, beginning with when he got his season tickets behind the Bullets bench in 1983. By then, he had stopped going to Deer Lake. He says he gave up his occasional guest role in the most famous entourage boxing had ever known after Ali's second fight with Leon Spinks, which took place in September 1978 and had Ali regaining the title for the third and last time. So Ficker wasn't around for the saddest chapters of Ali's career, losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in fights that should have been stopped before they ever took place.
Ali broke camp broke for good at Deer Lake in 1981, after losing his last fight to Berbick in the Bahamas; the American Boxing Federation had revoked Ali's boxing license out of concerns for his health. Ali sold the compound in 1997. (It's up for sale right now through the auction house, Guernseys.)
Of the camp regulars, Pat Patterson, Bundini Brown, Luis Sarria, and Lana Shabazz are dead. Rahman Ali was involved in the filming of I Am Ali, but the new documentary's producers declined to make him available for an interview, citing poor health. Ali, who was not involved in the film, is not doing well mentally or physically.
Ficker didn't hide that he knew Ali back in the day. A Washington Star story from October 1976, when Ficker was running as an independent while taking another unsuccessful shot at a seat in Congress, said that his campaign put out a press release identifying him as "Robin Ficker, who did roadwork with Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World, Monday through Thursday of last week." And a few months earlier, in May 1976, when Ficker was working as an attorney for the Information Services Business Division (ISBD) of General Electric, the in-house newsletter for GE employees ran a large photo of the most famous man in the world, who just happened to be running alongside ISBD's staff attorney. From the headline ("Robin Ficker and Muhammad Ali: Fellow Athletes!") and caption, one might surmise they were sporting equals and the closest of pals:
ISBD Attorney Robin Ficker is quite the athlete, and this photo bears that claim out. For four mornings, at 5:30, Robin set a fast pace for 4.5 miles to help his friend, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Muhammad Ali, ''get myself in shape and lose some weight" prior to the April 30 championship fight against Jimmy Young (and we all know how it turned out!) at Washington's Capital Centre arena. As Muhammad put it, "Robin makes me run faster; and that's good for me!"
Ficker has earned his reputation for self-promotion. It's hard to find an instance of where he has underplayed, well, anything about himself—except, that is, for his heyday brushes with Ali. He did recently post a photo of him running in Greenbelt Park with Ali in 1976—apparently the same shot used in that GE newsletter—up on the Facebook page for his current campaign, but that's about it. So why hasn't he gone all Ficker on his Ali ties? Well, maybe it's because his interactions with the champ, as cool as they seem on paper, were never as exhilarating as his dealings with Layden or Barkley or Jordan or during his heckler days.
Or perhaps Ficker doesn't boast about just being near Ali because he "gets sad" whenever he thinks about him.
He's felt that way ever since he went down to a Silver Spring bookstore in the late 1990s, where Ali was scheduled to make an appearance. Ficker made the trip thinking he'd try to engage the champ about old times. Ali, he says, was there in body, but not mind. When he approached Ali, Ficker says, he realized right away there was not going to be any reminiscing.
"I looked in his eyes," Ficker said, "but there was no recognition. No nothing. He had no idea who I was."
But they still had Deer Lake and Greenbelt Park. Asked why he thought Ali let him hang, Ficker says, "Everybody wanted something from him. I didn't ask for anything." Well, except for an audience, which he received. No gift could have possibly aged better than that.
Ficker's heckles never quite attained the level of Ali's poetry. He would break into a sort of idiotic pentameter from his courtside seat. The first time I saw Ficker in action up close was at a Nets-Bullets game in 1991, where every few minutes he would attach every name on the roster to something random. "Phone call for Terry Mills!" "Phone call for Reggie Theus!" "Phone call for Chris Dudley!" And later in the same game: "What do you think of that, Tate George?" "What do you think of that, Derrick Coleman?" But repetition wasn't his only reaction inducer. Asked what he did to draw a charge from Duckworth, Ficker says, "I told him, 'Mike Tyson thought he was tough until he got knocked out.'"
Ficker's professional heckling days all but ended when the Bullets became the Wizards and moved into a new downtown arena in 1997. Owner Abe Pollin, likely with some coaxing from Commissioner David Stern, took away Ficker's seats and moved him away from the floor. Ficker rejected the move, and other than an occasional guest appearance—like when he showed up at Verizon Center with a whiteboard and sat behind the visiting Indiana Pacers' bench during last season's Wizards-Pacers playoff series—Ficker has been invisible at NBA games.
But while he's stopped yelling at millionaires, Ficker has occasionally spoken up for the voiceless. In 1999, Ficker took up the cause of local deer. He was incensed at hunting expeditions organized by wildlife officials to "harvest" deer at Seneca Creek Park. Anybody with a Maryland hunting permit, a shotgun, and a $5 entry fee could get in the lottery, with the winner being granted a license to kill deer on select days at select state parks. He volunteered to turn his own 27-acre farm in Montgomery County into a deer refuge if that would stop the state-sanctioned killing. That offer was turned down, so Ficker started showing up at dawn at the shooting sites and handing out pamphlets about domestic abuse and mental health while heckling the lottery winners.
"If you're attracted to this type of slaughter, you're not a hunter or a sportsman," he told me at the time. "You're a selfish, worthless killer. You've got to be crazy."
He has also quietly become the region's go-to attorney in cases where scholastic bureaucrats try to ruin kids' lives. (Demand for this particular area of legal expertise has boomed since the 2012 mass shooting of school kids in Newtown, Conn.) In 2013, Ficker got the Prince William County, Va., school system to clear the record of an 8-year-old who'd been suspended for pointing a finger-gun at a classmate during a history lesson on the Wild West. He also successfully fought off a "terroristic threat" charge made by the Montgomery County schools against a 6-year-old who'd accessorized his finger-gun with sound effects, saying "Pow!" And he jumped into a squabble in Mount Carmel, Pa., on behalf of a 5-year-old who'd been given a 10-day suspension after allegedly pointing her Hello Kitty bubble machine at fellow kindergartners in a threatening manner. Ficker reportedly got the suspension reduced, then expunged.
For more than a year now, Ficker has been involved in what has become known as " the Pop Tart case." In March of 2013, a 7-year-old from Park Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, Md., chewed his store-bought pastry into the shape of a gun during snack time. His teacher told the principal, and the principal suspended the youngster for two days and sent an email blast to parents alerting the community that "a student used food to make an inappropriate gesture."
The kid's family quickly retained Ficker, who petitioned the county board of education to expunge the punishment from the kid's record. It's not going well for his side, but Ficker says that despite losses in the early rounds, the fight's not over.
"These are situations that should be handled in a school setting, not with suspensions," he says. "If you've got all sorts of education degrees but can't deal with a 7-year-old, what good are all your education degrees?"
If all of this makes you worry that the NBA's more legendary heckler has gone soft, rest assured. In recent years he's taken care of his look-at-me jones by showing up at University of Maryland wrestling matches, of all things, and screaming non-stop like only Ficker can. The mat program welcomes his support: Ficker was named an honorary captain of one of the sides in the Terps' intra-squad wrestle offs, a preseason event that determines the team's depth chart. He's excited about Maryland's debut in the Big Ten, the last conference to give a damn about wrestling. He says he'll show up to this Sunday's home opener against George Mason University in combat boots, the very same pair he wore running through Greenbelt and Deer Lake with the champ. And he's already scripted some of the lines he'll be yelling at the opposition.
"I've got rhymes ready," he says.
Wonder where that came from.
Photos courtesy Robin Ficker.