Inching open the door to his darkened Belfast flat like a petrified pensioner, Alex Higgins wheezed at me: “Come back later when I’ve got out of my pyjamas.”
The sight of his skeletal frame swamped in material was my introduction to an icon.
And it summed up his spectacular fall from grace — from hell-raising Hurricane to a haunted shadow of a man.
Higgins had told me to call at his door at 11am on May 8 for a “long interview” where he vowed to tell all about his “planet of heartache and regrets”.
And he lived up to his promise — once he’d dressed. I called back at 1pm, and he was ready.
But it had taken days of phonecalls to the famously stubborn 61-year-old to get that far.
Higgins told me over the phone: “I don’t trust anyone any more, so don’t screw me over.”
It was only after a few chats that he finally relented and invited me round to his sheltered housing flat at Ulidia House hostel on the Donegall Road .
I think it was the gift I took along that made him open up.
By this stage, radiotherapy had caused all his teeth to fall out and he was reduced to eating baby food.
So I took packets of the pate his pals said he loved, because it was easy for him to get down.
When he looked at the food, he looked genuinely moved.
“Come in, come in,” he told me and a photographer, ushering us into his living room.
For the next three hours, he sat slumped in an armchair and spoke about the women and cash he’d lost over the years.
“It’s all gone, all gone,” he said. “I used to play snooker in millionaires’ mansions with marble floors and eat at the best places, but that’s all over now.”
He relived his past glories, but always came back to how he’d seen two marriages crumble around him in a whirlwind as he boozed and gambled.
It was a pitiful confession that would never have happened in the Hurricane’s trailblazing, womanising prime as a two-time world champion.
Then, he would have swept into a room in a loud shirt and suit and blown away all in his path with his wit, cue — or fists, depending how he was feeling.
But when I spoke to him, the lightest of breezes would have knocked the former double world champ off his feet.
He tipped the scales at 6st 7lbs, could hardly eat and spoke in a puny, rasping whisper, his vocal cords ravaged by cancer.
He was spending his days shuffling between his flat and The Royal Bar opposite his home. He said he still drank rums and Guinness every day, and smoked four cigarettes — against doctors’ orders.
As he talked of his regrets, the only remains of his hell-raising spirit was in his eyes.
The green/blue orbs bulged from his gaunt, emaciated face, sparkling with rage and regret.
I noticed them after he told me that tears still filled his eyes when he thought of how he treated his “last great love” Siobhan Kidd — who ditched him in 1989 after he battered her with a hairdryer.
Higgins insisted that Siobhan was still his “one true love” and on his mind “every day”.
“I wish she was here to look after me now,” he said.
At that point, he told me he’d give me a tour of his flat.
Layered with a thin sheet of grime, the small home was filled with mementos of his hey-day.
But the trophies and medals lay unpolished, and a set of snooker balls and cues he’d kept for almost 30 years lay in a pile on his living room floor.
He showed me his pureed meals in his kitchen — he said his 10 sets of dentures were too painful to wear.
One part of his tour sticks in my mind. His bedroom had a huge poster of Audrey Hepburn on the wall.
Higgins told me: “This mattress hasn’t seen any action in years. I’ll die celibate.
“I f***ed it all up. Now I’m on my own... celibate. I’ve been celibate for years and years.”
His greatest fear was of dying alone, with no woman in his life.
On Saturday, his prediction came true when a neighbour found his body alone in that single bed.