What strikes me first, as they enter the banquet room for this 40th anniversary celebration, is their diversity. Country boys, crusaders, doctors, daredevils, con artists, saints. Blacks, whites, Latinos, Canadians, a Czech, a Brazilian and a Belarussian to boot. What strikes me second is that even the deceased are here—and if Bear Bryant and Roberto Clemente agreed to come, how could the reluctant ones, like Bill Russell and Larry Bird, possibly refuse?

Everyone turns to the doorway now; the rattling of ice cubes and cocktail glasses halts. Muhammad Ali slowly enters. A voice booms: "If it isn't . . . the great . . . Mooo-ham-ad Ahh-leeeee!" It's Howard Cosell imitating Howard Cosell.

I hang on the fringes of the gathering, feigning dignity and nonchalance. More discussion is being spent on those who aren't on the list than on those who are. Clemente can't fathom why he's here but Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle aren't, not realizing that in the final reckoning, lasting significance outweighed pure achievement. John Wooden can't believe Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Roger Bannister aren't here, not recognizing that their main contributions came before SI's birth in 1954. Julius Erving asks Magic Johnson where Wilt Chamberlain is, and Richard Petty is feeling bad for A.J. Foyt. Meanwhile, everyone is lamenting the evening's one no-show among the invitees—Secretariat could have made a hell of an entrance.

Ali is shown to the head of the table as the others settle into their places. My head spins, trying to decide which conversations to listen in on. If I opt for the chat between Billie Jean King and Pete Rose, am I not certain to miss something priceless between Pelè and Olga Korbut, between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus?

As the spinach salad is being served, a Profound Truth occurs to me. In an age when TV, cars and air conditioning isolate us from each other more and more, think of all the human issues we've been drawn into by these 40 people. Because of them, haven't even those of us who have used sports to shut out life been forced to face life? To consider, as we stretch out in front of our televisions, the stigma of skin color and sexuality; to confront debilitating addictions, deadly disease, alternative religions, overwhelming generosity and greed. Why lament it? If sports has become America's most-shared human experience, its most public banquet—which it has in these last 40 years—then why shouldn't the whole human story, all its wonders and woes, be spilled on its table?

I notice that the guests have begun, in turn, approaching Ali to speak a few quiet words, letting him know what he has meant to them in their own quests. It brings a hush to the table, this homage-paying, a hush broken when Joe Namath cracks a joke and Russell lets out one of his chandelier-shattering cackles. By the time the baby lamb chops are served, the passion that has made these 40 people extraordinary is beginning to push all social awkwardness out of the way. The room is abuzz.

The late Dr. Harold Gores is trying to explain to Joe Montana that it's not his fault that AstroTurf, born of Gores's dream for inner-city schoolyards, landed instead on the floors of 60,000-seat stadiums. Greg LeMond is telling Michael Jordan how it feels to blur down one of the Pyrenees within whiskers of wild-eyed Basques. Dr. Robert Jackson is rhapsodizing on the miracle of the arthroscope to Bobby Orr, whose joints betrayed him after one decade, and Nolan Ryan, whose hinges held up for nearly three. Gary Davidson, the guy who helped found three renegade leagues, is leaning across Jim Fixx as he tries to sell his latest real estate venture to Don King. Roone Arledge is explaining the creative impulse behind the camera tricks he introduced to televised sports, while Dr. J and Wayne Gretzky are nodding, realizing how the ABC wizard's art acted as midwife for the art of nearly everyone at this table.

I'm floating here and there, discreet as the butter knife, eavesdropping shamelessly. One spin around the table is all it takes to identify the three most powerful currents of sports' last 40 years. They're talking television—Arledge and ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen are trying to explain their medium's lust for games, admitting that the tube simply can't find anyone who can write drama or invent spontaneity half as purely as those gathered at this table have lived it on our screens.

They're talking big bucks—superagent Mark McCormack, union chief Marvin Miller and NFL czar Pete Rozelle are holding court at mid-table on the volcanic changes wrought by marketing and money. And down at the far end, they're talking the rise of the black athlete. Hank Aaron, Arthur Ashe and Jim Brown are dominating that conversation, keeping Ray Leonard and Carl Lewis rapt with war stories that reveal how deep the scars run. Aaron is talking about the vermin that emerged during his pursuit of the home run record, and Martina Navratilova is saying, Yes, Henry, but you know, if you're lucky enough to last and strong enough not to curl up, sheer endurance can turn it around. How much harder it becomes for people to cling to hatreds when someone who embodies that which they fear keeps smiling and sticking his head in the fire each week on their family-room TVs.

It's after midnight when Cosell poses the question I've been burning to ask all night. As Bear Bryant is reaching for his houndstooth hat, Howard asks him to describe The Other Side. In that deep, gravelly voice the Bear starts sizing up Auburn, giving everyone the perfect laugh to exit on.

As the guests file out, I can't help overhearing the three busboys who have begun to clear the table. "What a joke!" the short one's saying. "Don friggin' King over Vince Lombardi!"

"Lombardi?" the tall, thin one's snorting. "I'm scrap-in' off Peggy Fleming's plate instead of Gordie Howe's!"

"I'm tellin' ya both," the fat, sweaty one's saying, "this list is a slap in the face to Sadaharu Oh. . . ."