Being that the “Greatest of All Time” was one who dabbled in the art of writing verse, there was a famous quote from the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot that somehow stuck in my head on Friday: “Home is where one starts from.”
Friday, Louisville welcomed Muhammad Ali back home one last time.
Friday wasn’t about a funeral procession down the streets of Louisville (though there was that) or a memorial service in a packed Yum Center (though was there that) as much as this was a civic celebration, welcoming home a skinny kid the city had sent out into the world. He achieved success and fortune, was famous and infamous, charismatic and controversial, but he made every step his own.
Muhammad Ali, who died last week at the age of 74, was certainly a global figure. He befriended kings, dined with dignitaries, befriended celebrities, lit up the world’s television screens. His three-hour-plus memorial service Friday boasted plenty of star power. Billy Crystal was funny and terrific. Bryant Gumbel was solemn and grateful for the opportunity. Bill Clinton, the former president, brought the long program to a close with a meaningful message, focusing on the second half of Ali’s life, on the heavyweight champion’s fight with Parkinson’s disease, on being a “free man of faith.”
And yet, early in the program, it was a local pastor who did by far the best job of hitting home with the home crowd. Dr. Kevin Cosby, minister of St. Stephen’s Church, explained Ali’s role and importance to the black community, especially Louisville’s black community, in a way that electrified the crowd.
As Cosby noted, there were black athletic heroes before Ali, from Jackie Robinson to Joe Louis to Jesse Owens. “And then from Louisville, emerged the silver-tongued poet,” said Cosby, his voice lifting as the crowd roared.
Ali broke the mold, or the mold of how blacks were supposed to be seen. To me, that was the thing about Ali. He was loud, not quiet. He was brash, not respectful. He was arrogant — or at least pretended to be — not humble. (“When James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,’” reported Cosby.) He chose Islam over Christianity. He refused to go to Vietnam, sacrificing his heavyweight title. He lived the life he wanted to live, the way he wanted to live it.
“If Muhammad didn’t like the rules, he re-wrote them,” said his wife, Lonnie, during the memorial service.
If Muhammad Ali didn’t like the rules, he re-wrote them.
Some liked that, some didn’t. Some argue that over time you could see whatever you wanted to see in “The People’s Champ,” be that good or bad, that the man didn’t always match the myth. People of differing passions and persuasions can argue such things.
But then I heard Tavis Smiley, the talk-show host and author, say on a television show last weekend that when he was growing up, Muhammad Ali was the “freest black man we knew.”
That was what Friday’s celebration was all about, how a 12-year-old kid from Grand Avenue — who got his bike stolen and discovered boxing thanks to a white police officer — used his amazing athletic gifts and sense of individualism to teach the world what freedom was all about. Something better than boxing.
So Friday, Louisville threw roses on the hearse that carried Ali’s casket through the streets. It chanted “Ali, Ali, Ali” at his memorial service. It gave off the feeling of pride and solidarity in honoring the celebrated life of one of its own.
It was Cosby who told the out-of-town visitors he hoped they would return to Louisville, but if they did they had to know the rules. At the Kentucky Derby, you can’t place your bet once the horse is shining in the winner’s circle, you have to place your bet when the horse is in the starting gate, standing in the mud.
This was where the full life of Muhammad Ali began, and at its end, Louisville welcomed a Louisvillian home.