By Jeff Zimmerman
Photos: Emerico Perez
Once again former 2x world champion Paulie Ayala and his Punching out Parkinson’s annual fundraiser – Meet the Champs VI – was a knockout event Saturday night at The Fort Worth Club in Fort Worth, Texas.
Punching out Parkinson’s or POP as it is known is the brainchild of Ayala where Ayala created a boxing infused non-contact workout to help individuals inflicted with the dreaded disease, a long term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly impacts motor skills, and that to date has no cure. Ayala runs 10 classes per week ranging from 60-100 members at any given time.
There have been incredible guest speakers in past years that included former 4X world champion and Hall of Famer Terry Norris, former CIA agent Tony Mendez who was the basis for Ben Affleck’s Argo movie, astronaut Rich Clifford and the daughter of “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali, Maryum “May May” Ali, who headlined the 5-year anniversary of the program and told some amazing stories of her dad and his battle with Parkinson’s.
This year’s speaker, former NBA star Brian Grant, however, made this event feel bigger than life and not just because Grant is a giant of a man at 6’9” and was about 250lbs during his 12-year career where he played power forward / center in his heyday and battled the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Karl “The Mailman” Malone down in the paint for so many years.
Grant’s speech humanized this pervasive and frustrating disease like nobody before, that not only impacts the person with it but the caregivers and families and where another 60,000 people in the U.S. alone will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s this year.
Perhaps it’s because Grant is now 45 yet he started seeing symptoms as early as 2005 when he was still playing basketball with the Phoenix Suns at only 33. A man that out-hustled everyone up and down the court in college at Xavier to make it in the NBA and then took on the biggest and baddest men in the sport and more than held his own was now noticing changes in his body.
But that’s where Parkinson’s does not discriminate. It didn’t matter that Grant was probably one of the best and most conditioned athletes in the world and was a physical specimen that played at the highest level of basketball and under grueling coaches like Pat Riley. Parkinson’s did not care who he was or what he did for a living when it started to control his body. And to hear Grant share his story last night left the packed house in downtown Fort Worth in awe no doubt and inspired by his words and personal videos.
It wasn’t until teammates on the Suns noticed how badly he missed a slam dunk in practice, that it was time to find out what was happening to him and finally after visiting multiple doctors he was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s. That was in 2005, four years before he would go public with the disease and it was only after Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali who became close friends encouraged him to do so.
Grant told the audience that he once thought having depression meant you were weak minded until he found himself sitting on the couch all day eating captain crunch for nine months and watched himself balloon up over 300lbs.
Grant shared how many friends, former players and even family didn’t know how to react to him with Parkinson’s. He doesn’t blame them however and doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. The one call he did get though is one nobody probably saw coming and was from Malone aptly known as “The Mailman,” since he always delivered on the court. And he delivered in the biggest way by reaching out to Grant to lend his support and hearing of his condition even after their many physical and heated battles over their careers. Malone and Grant shared a passion for fishing and took a trip to Alaska that was well documented and life-altering altering bond.
Grant also showed a video where he and seven others also diagnosed with Parkinson’s in a support group he formed, took to climbing Mount St. Helens and called it the hardest thing he ever did in his life and even joked including playing for Pat Riley for four years.
He talked about the need to be active and keep moving and when he got off the couch and started doing that, he saw amazing improvements walking and with his gait. He stated at one point, “this is me walking through life with Parkinson’s not Parkinson’s walking me through life.”
And Grant’s motto is “keep powering forward until I can’t go any further.” And what he showed from a before and after picture where he gained so much weight, Grant is clearly powering forward and moving and looks in great shape and amazing spirits.
In addition to Grant, a couple of doctors spoke about the incredible advancements they continue to find on a potential cure of Parkinson’s and provided hope that one could be coming in the next handful of years to the delight of everyone in attendance.
Grant stayed long after the event and talked individually to many of those in Ayala’s program and took pictures with whoever wanted one. The event included a silent auction which had items ranging from a signed Magic Johnson basketball to a signed glove by Roy Jones Jr and a cocktail hour with appetizers. There was also a raffle for some amazing trips and a steak and shrimp sit down dinner.
The MC’s for the evening were longtime local ESPN radio personality Mark “Elf” Elfenbein and Pamela Minick, Queen of Rodeo and Billy Bob’s world’s famous honky tonk bar in Fort Worth.
Ayala’s program is located at his University Hard Knocks Gym in Fort Worth, Texas and more information can be found at http://www.punchingoutparkinsons.org/ .