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A star orbits a sun, Leonardo had a great serve

Monday night's high-profile Hollywood gala for Project ALS, a tribute to producer Brad Grey, featured Ben Stiller as emcee, Paul Simon performing, a guest list that included Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, David Spade, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and a video from the entire cast of "The Sopranos" (which Grey executive-produces).

A TIC spy at one of the big-enchilada tables reports that a starstruck Pitt kept walking by, behaving like a fan trying to catch the eye of the event's most celebrated guest. But Pitt never worked up the courage to approach and say hello to Muhammad Ali.

When the spy -- who proclaims himself a virgin autograph hound -- very gingerly asked the champ if he'd sign his program, Ali asked if it was OK if he made a drawing. He spent 10 minutes creating an image of a boxing ring with two figures, labeled Ali and Joe Frazier, which he signed after checking carefully the spelling of the spy's name.

Returning to San Francisco with this treasure, the spy says he was struck by Ali's availability, his intensity and the size of his hand. "He's a gentle giant."

THE SMART SET: The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute -- the group that brought Steve Martin to the stage of Herbst to romp with Robin Williams recently -- is celebrating plans for a new library with a reception April 24. Institute chairman is William R. Hearst III, whose B.A. was in mathematics, who is the son of Austine McDonnell Hearst for whom the library will be named, and whose family's company owns this newspaper.

The entertainment for the celebration is Stanford University statistics and mathematics Professor Persi Diaconis, who's a professional magician and winner of a MacArthur fellowship, and who figured out that a deck of cards needs to be shuffled seven times to be randomized, which means mixed up, which is just what he isn't.

P.S. This week's Grotto Nights VI -- one in a series of events that give writers who share workspace at the writers community the Grotto the chance to strut their stuff with other writers and artists -- was such a success that 200 fans had to be turned away from the auditorium of the Main Library. A new venue -- Pac Bell? -- may be required.

ANSWERS: A Stanford reader noticed that Monday's Dear Abby included a letter from "Hurt and Confused in Oregon," who complained that her best friend had inexplicably stopped talking to her. The same day, Miss Manners counseled a reader wondering whether to offer an explanation to someone she had "decided to cut . . . out of my social circle" because of "fundamental differences." Were they two sides of the same relationship?

Both columnists recommended keeping cool. Go on with your life, said Abby; be too busy to see her, said Miss Manners. TIC, who teethed on the zwiebach of Hollywood relationships, suggests that Hurt and Confused hasten her healing by stealing the Cutter's husband.

THE HOSPITALITY INDUSTRY: Next week's New York magazine reports that Roman Coppola's new wine, RC Reserve, was celebrated with a party at Radio City Music Hall, with model Frankie Rayder, Coppola's sweetie, pouring wine. She said she was experienced at the job. "I worked at a golf course in Wisconsin on the eighth hole. I served beer, and, like, Snickers."

Meanwhile, a waiter was so grateful to the TIC spy who pointed out Gary Danko dining at the Foothill Cafe in the Napa Valley (an "undiscovered gem," says the spy) on Wednesday night that he waived the corkage fee. By the time the waiter realized who the unnoticed guest was, Danko was leaving the restaurant; the waiter dashed to the parking lot to pay homage.

FINALLY: Just about to commence wrangling over a divorce from first brother Neil Bush, his soon-to-be-ex Sharon's PR people told the New York Observer she's talking to people -- Kitty Kelley for one -- about a book about the Bush family. Is this blackmail? Kelley told the Washington Post that Bush is going to marry his girlfriend (former Barbara Bush assistant Maria Andrews) and that Sharon Bush is worried about money. "She's very frightened about her future. . . . She told me he's only offering $1,000 a month in support."
Leonardo had a great serve

""I see comparisons between artists and tennis players. I've always thought these two fields are filled with people cut from the same cloth. They often feel alone.'' .‚.‚. '' From John McEnroe's introduction to ""Richard Diebenkorn, Figurative Works on Paper,'' published in conjunction with a Diebenkorn show at the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco through April 26.