I WAS ALI. Circling back-pedaling, flicking out jabs and yelling at my brother, "Come on, you big bear." In my fantasy, my brother, older and bigger, was Liston, he was Frazier, he was Foreman and I was Ali. I was laughing, bragging, rope-a-doping, being "the greatest" as long as the kitchen table stayed between us.

These days when kids play-fight there are no jabs and "dance like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Now hands are held stiffly, palms making a hard edge to go along with karate's "hah" and "ahcha." Not even words, just grunts. Even with a mouthpiece Ali could get out words. If these kids only knew.

With Ali's retirement they will never know. Now the papers run a picture of Ali, big lumpy rings of fat around his stomach and pushing over his trunks. Now Ali looks like the "big bear."

And today's kids will never know because those pictures haven't been the worst of late. For Ali's fans the worst came last year a rookie with no teeth, no style and windmill-like punches, Leon Spinks, beat Ali. One sportswriter described Spinks as "a noble savage." A savage dethroning Ali. That ended the fantasy. Ali had been taken out by some wild-eyed chump who wore loud hats, acted like he just came to the city from the country, and was constantly getting arrested. My angel, Ali, had fallen.I had fallen, too.

You see a big part of me was Ali. He was a big part of all back kids. I was 9 years old in 1964 when Ali dethroned Sonny (The Bear) Liston and stunned the world.

The next year I remember listening to the second Ali-Liston fight on the radio. The announcer was yelling "Liston is down, Liston is down, he's not getting up . . . I didn't even see the punch."

The next day the writers who said Ali would never beat Liston called it the "Phantom Punch." On TV they ran the knockout sequence again and again, trying to find the punch. But they never put two and two together.

Even as, a kid in Brooklyn, I knew that Ail, standing over Liston daring him to get up, had thrown a punch that was just too fast for the human eye.

At age 9, when I was starting to understand the world, Ali was a budding legend. And as I grew, he grew to become my private hero.

He was pure joy, pure fame, pure natural ability. He was jazz. A child of the universe who had learned to fight because some bully stole his bike. I had a bike and I had trouble with bullies, too.

They said Ali wasn't ready to fight Liston. He had to train more, he had to study more. He relied too much on his natural ability, they said. He wasn't old enough. They were saying the same thing about him that they always say about kids. And Ali was making them eat it.

As civil rights and black pride grew, going through troubles and phases, so did Ali and I. He joined the Muslims. I wondered if that was right, but I understood where his heart was - racial identification, racial pride. I just hoped the Muslims were good people.

He changed his name. Daring. He refused to be drafted. I was sure he was right on that one, and I wasn't even in high school. His politics made sense to me.

Ali was standing up to the social changes, the fads, standing up to all of the madness and I watched closely. He was more than a boxer. They said he was too dumb, getting a 78 on an IQ test, but he was making the Army look dumb. And through it all Ali was still a happy black kid who loved to jive and laugh. He didn't let the tragedies and turmoil of the '60s overwhelm him - as it might have any ordinary boxer - he kept pace, he made himself a part of those times and then he outlasted those times. This was a hero. He was everlasting.

Best of all Ali stayed a young black man - someone I could related to - through all that craziness. He never became Floyd Patterson, neat and proper, never a harsh word spoken. He never became mob-connected, he never sold out, never played the fall guy for Howard Cosell by being intimidated by big words (in fact he had the last laugh on Cosell by holding up holding up Cosell's toupee).