Never mind that the crowds weren't exactly awesome, or that it was a bit blustery to be speeding around town in an open car, or even that President Reagan called his wife "Mrs. Ray." It was Sugar Ray Leonard Day in Washington yesterday, as a hometown hero returned to speeches, parades and the acclaim of his neighbors.
Cheering crowds gathered to welcome him at the District Building and the Capitol. School children in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods waited on street corners for his triumphal procession to pass and shadow-boxed to mimic the champ in action. Old friends and fans debated his allegiance to his roots, and generally concluded that Leonard was handling his success well. Grinning politicians jostled one another in front of television cameras to be close to Sugar Ray.
Leonard, his left eye still puffy and discolored from the piledriver punches that Thomas (Hit Man) Hearns threw at him in vain last week, owned Washington yesterday, starting with a visit to the Oval Office and a chat with the president.
"You're all here," Reagan joked to reporters as he stood next to Leonard, "on condition you don't ask us to go a couple of rounds." Reagan misidentified Leonard's wife, Juanita, as "Mrs. Ray," and suggested that he might ask Leonard, who earned about $15 million from the Hearns fight, "to do a few benefit fights" to help erase the U.S. deficit.
The presidential visit accomplished, Leonard, the victor, rode throughout the city on whose outskirts he grew up and still lives. Before and after the Hearns fight, Leonard conjured a shadowy, unseen opposition: People were out to get him, he said; they wanted to hold him back; they resented his success. His repeated comments sparked a debate, particularly in Washington's black community, over whether the area truly supported its champion, or indeed whether it should.
"When they say you can't do it, go ahead and do it to make them mad," Leonard told an afternoon crowd of several hundred people on the steps of the District Building. But he saw little evidence yesterday of the menace he tells everyone that he senses.
Local politicians scrambled over one another to be close to him and the radiance of his popularity. D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy, who had custody of the champ for most of the day, took him on a motorcade through the black neighborhoods of Southeast and Northwest Washington -- but not without other local officials like D.C. City Councilman H. R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents the suburban district in which Leonard lives.
While the motorcade was stopped along Vermont Avenue, in fact, a smiling Hoyer left his own closed car to join Leonard and Fauntroy in the open Cadillac that was the object of most of the television camera crews and newspaper photographers.
When the motorcade reached the District Building, Leonard was surrounded by virtually the whole D.C. City Council, plus Fauntroy, Maryland State Sen. Tommie Broadwater, and an enthusiastic Mayor Marion Barry, who attended the Leonard-Hearns fight in Las Vegas on Sept. 16.
"He is our bright and shining star, the lily of the valley, the warrior of warriors," Barry gushed, after another Washington resident, singer Ray (Sly) Latney, had delivered a rendition of his instant hit single, "It's Your Day, Sugar Ray."
Then it was on to the Capitol for yet another ceremony, and finally a reception hosted by Fauntroy to end Washington's first such homecoming since the Washington Bullets won the National Basketball Association championship and returned to tumult in 1978.
Black communities have always taken their athletes seriously, especially their prizefighters, and Washington is no exception. "People live through their athletes and champions. Not everyone can make it, but we can all share that glory," said the Rev. Richard Johnson, a Methodist clergyman who braved biting gusts of wind to see Leonard's motorcade begin at Pennsylvania and Southern avenues SE.
Leonard was praised yesterday by Washingtonians as a role model for the city's youth, a young man who is polite, respects his elders and has made a lot of money, perhaps violently, but legally. A few people interviewed thought that Leonard had abandoned the community that spawned him, but that was a minority view.
Most seemed to share the opinion of Ophelia Jones, a waitress for the past 27 years at the Florida Avenue Grill, Northwest Washington's bona fide soul food shrine. Black celebrities passing through town often eat at the Grill. Leonard drops in about once a month, Jones said, for a breakfast of hot halfsmokes, eggs, grits, orange juice and flaky biscuits.
"He's a very nice young man, respectful, polite, and most of all, he's got time for his people," said Jones, a tall, dark, stocky woman who wore a hairnet and a white waitress's uniform.
She said that the last time Leonard was in the restaurant, just before he left for training camp to prepare for the Hearns fight, a young boy spotted him and went out to round up more than 50 of his friends. After Leonard finished eating, Jones said, he took time to sign autographs for all the youngsters and kiss all the girls. Jones said that at Christmas, Leonard gives $100 to each shift of waitresses for them to split as a bonus.
Jones had a drawing of Leonard behind the counter, and rummaged through her belongings to produce a hot-off-the-presses copy of "It's Your Day, Sugar Ray," which she said had been given her by a friend. "And it was a young man who gave it to me, too," she said with a wink.
The Oakcrest Recreation Center in Suitland was one of the places where it all began for Leonard, where he learned his trade. It was locked and deserted yesterday, but that didn't stop Donald Butler, 18, and "Rock" Parks, 21, from trying to climb in and spar a few rounds.
The two young men said they had heard that there was bad feeling for Sugar Ray among some people, but they would have none of that.
"He's always been something to me," said Parks. "I listened to that fight on the radio and when I heard he knocked him out, we jumped for joy . . . . I heard that some Palmer Park people don't like him any more because they say he's got all that money and don't pay them enough attention. But I think he should stay right where he is."
"There are a lot of people who say Ray hasn't done anything for the community. They just don't know anything Ray has done -- a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there," said Ollie Dunlap, a trainer at the Palmer Park gym. "He's helped people with burials, things like that. He just gave $3,800 for seven kids to go down to Nassau for a boxing tournament. These are the types of things Ray will do but he doesn't get any publicity for it."
Dunlap, a heavy-set man with gray sprinkled through his hair, bristled at criticism that Leonard doesn't spend enough time with his old friends.
"When you have $25 million you can't be hanging out in a shopping center all day," he said. "When you have a family, when you have responsibilities, when do you have time to socialize in Palmer Park?"
There were, though, a few naysayers. "To me he's another Muhammad Ali -- mouth," said Jane Hairston, a saleswoman at Woodward & Lothrop at Landover Mall. "If you're good, you're good. You don't have to go all around and tell people. When I see him on TV, I just get up and go out of the room. My boyfriend likes him, but I don't. He's got too much mouth and he's just got too big."
At Ideal Auto Sales, a used car lot on 14th Street NW near Clifton Road, men were bent over automobile hoods, peering inside as if trying to read tea leaves. Herb Gaines, proprietor of the lot and a devotee of local boxing, is not a Ray Leonard fan.
"Ray has turned his back on all his friends," he said. "The man's gone white. I know he can't help the whole world, but I just hate to see people turn against him. He's being attracted by the great white force right now. Maybe that's the way a millionaire has to act, but if it is, I don't want to be like him."
But Luke Jones, a heavy-set man working behind a desk in the office of the car dealership, disagreed. "People who talk about him don't understand the business aspect of it," he said. "Some people just have to fall by the wayside."
Jones added, "I think Ray is more popular in D.C. than he thinks he is. I really do."
If there were doubts and demons in Leonard's mind, the motorcade through the streets of Washington should have done much to eliminate them.
As he turned off Pennsylvania Aveune onto Alabama Avenue SE, he saw a group of school kids jumping with glee and punching the air with their little fists. Leonard, who donned a raincoat in the open car, waved and smiled.
At Good Hope Road and 15th Street SE, the motorcade was mobbed. Leonard's car was surrounded by more than a hundred children. He signed a few autographs, but there was no time to get to everyone.
At the notorious drug-selling junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Talbert Street SE, sullen-looking young men offered what seemed to be genuine smiles. On the Southwest Freeway, gawkers in traffic stopped for the motorcade got out of their cars to wave to the champ.
At the Styles International hair salon at 909 12th St. NW, a gaggle of pretty women dashed outside to see the Sugar Man as he passed, their summery dresses billowing in the sudden fall wind.
At Bennette's barber shop on U Street NW, two white-haired men stood stoically at the window, allowing themselves only reserved smiles. A few blocks later, three young women pretended to faint as Leonard's car passed, then jumped up and cheered some more.
At the finale on the steps of the Capitol, there were more politicians -- Sen. Charles Mc.C. Mathias (R-Md.), House Majority Leader James Wright and Maine Sen. William Cohen, who sponsored a joint resolution honoring Leonard.
They made speeches, but it wasn't their day.
"If I had known I would receive something like this," Leonard said, "I would have knocked Hearns out a long time ago."