As Ali has evolved, so have Louisvillians with him

Updated: November 22, 2005, 6:36 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Here, the stories that make the old folks' eyes twinkle are not about the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle or life as a worldwide ambassador for peace.

Here, in Muhammad Ali's hometown, the stories start when he was just Cassius -- a high-spirited, loquacious teenager from the poor streets of Louisville's West End, who dared to dream of things so much more grand than his reality would seem to permit.

Ali fan
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeVernell Strawn of Harrisburg, Pa., has been a fan of Muhammad Ali for decades. Strawn attended Sunday's dedication, with a photo in tow that he's owned since 1978.
On a warm and sunny November afternoon, three old acquaintances of the world's most famous man sat close by the Ohio River, swapping Ali tales and laughing. On a nearby stage dignitaries and politicians were extolling The Greatest, the local kid whose far-fetched dreams were realized and even exceeded. The bigwigs came from across the globe for the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, the ambitious cultural gathering place that will serve as a memorial to the boxer-turned-activist's peerless legacy.

It was a momentous event, steeped in pomp and circumstance. But for Ali's old pals, this was something more personal. This was a chance to lay eyes upon him again and to flash back to before he had shocked, outraged and ultimately charmed the world.

Sonny Wells, who graduated from Central High School in 1961, a year after Cassius Clay, remembers frequently looking out the window of the school bus and seeing the silly boy running alongside it in boots.

"He'd run all the way from 36th Street to 12th Street," Wells said with a big laugh. "And a lot of times he'd beat the bus. Everyone thought he was crazy."

At school, young Ali would grab Abdullah Lateef (then Samuel Jones) around the neck and pretend to run him headfirst into the lockers. Ali would slam his shoulder into the metal to simulate the collision, just trying to turn heads.

"If he'd really run my head into that locker, I would've taken care of him," boasted Lateef, a small man. "Y'all might never have heard of him."

Yvonne Harvey lived just across the river in New Albany, Ind., but she remembers coming to the Broadway Skating Rink to roller-skate with Ali and his friends. It was a dusty place with a concrete floor covered with tiles -- not much to look at, but the center of the social orbit for young African-Americans.

I don't think Louisville has done a complete 180 on Muhammad. I think we've done about a 160. There still are some Vietnam veterans and some hard-core Christians who are angry that he's a Muslim who protested the war and doesn't believe in Jesus Christ. But people do evolve. He's evolved, and we've evolved with him.
Louisville native John Ramsey,
close friend of Muhammad Ali

"That was the hangout," she said.

And how did Ali skate?

"He was wild as a deer," Wells said.

Harvey remembers one day at the rink in 1960. The Louisville Lip had just come back from the Rome Olympics, and he showed up at the rink with his gold medal around his neck.

It was all so sweetly simple then -- before war and peace and religion and staggering fame and illness changed everything. Before Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, who became larger than life.

He won his first professional fight in October 1960 in Freedom Hall, but his stage would soon widen. He was leaving Louisville behind, eventually belonging as much to the entire world as to his hometown.

Ever since, Muhammad Ali has been the Louisville Lightning Rod. He has stirred conflicting passions and emotions like no one else here at home. Louisvillians are so proud of him, yet they often were troubled by the man and his stands.

Louisville in 1960 was hardly the most progressive city in America. It was deeply segregated then. To this day, it remains mortally afraid of swift and substantive change and puts a premium on politeness.

In that context, consider a screaming, boastful black man who embraces Islam, changes his name, gets divorced multiple times and officially declares that, hell no, he won't go to war in Vietnam.

"I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong," Ali famously proclaimed.

It created ripples of unease, setting the stage for Ali to become the classic prophet without honor in his homeland. Just when his boxing career was shooting into orbit, he became the most divisive athlete in the world. Like much of the rest of the nation, part of Louisville wanted to hug its charismatic son, and part wanted to disown him.

Lateef remembers a day in 1964 when Ali was in town after first winning the heavyweight championship. He was coming out of a parking garage at 4th and Chestnut, downtown, and the reception was surprisingly chilly.

"I remember people wouldn't even speak to him," Lateef said.

"Louisville has not been kind to Muhammad Ali," Henry declared. "I'm sorry."

"The whole of America has not been kind to him," Lateef added.

The whole of America has steadily been making up for that unkindness over the past two decades -- Louisville prominently included. As with many aging great athletes, dislike inevitably gave way to respect and even to adoration.

At home, you will still find Louisvillians who have a problem with Ali -- many of them former war veterans. (Common misnomer from this faction: They say Ali is a draft dodger, but that is not true -- rather, he refused induction and took his punishment, despite the significant damage to his boxing career.)

But mostly you will find people inspired by the man and what he's done, rising from a midsize dot on the map in middle America.

The final great breakthrough moment -- globally and locally -- came at the Atlanta Olympics, of course. When Ali stood before us as never seen before -- profoundly humble, profoundly human -- and figuratively illuminated the world with the Olympic torch, the world changed once again around him.

It was a stunningly emotional moment -- in the stadium and in his hometown. I was in Atlanta and at the ceremony, but for weeks afterward I heard stories of Louisvillians watching the moment on TV with tears streaming down their faces.

"I cried," said Louisville native John Ramsey. "A lot of people did. I don't think the tears and the applause were sympathy. They were more out of admiration for his courage."

Ramsey had known Ali for 16 years by then, an unlikely friendship forged between a young white man whose hero was the famed black boxer nearly 20 years older.

Ramsey's parents divorced when he was 6 years old, and he rarely saw his father as a child. He grew up hearing stories about Ali, and Ali became a role model to him.

"He was like a far-off uncle you never got to meet, but you lived through him," Ramsey said.

He eventually got to meet Ali at a function in 1980, when Ramsey was 20 years old. Ali was surprisingly approachable.

(Part of the enduring charm of Ali is his affinity for meeting new people across the social spectrum. He is the polar opposite of so many modern athletes -- never insulated from his fellow man, never hiding behind his superstar status, never ducking the issues of the day.)

Ramsey walked up and did his Howard Cosell imitation. Ali responded by saying, "Howard gets paid for that. What's your excuse?"

Twenty-five years of close friendship have followed. Ramsey was part of the group that spearheaded the painfully slow process that resulted in the Muhammad Ali Center, and he badly wanted to see it happen in his hometown.

"I don't think Louisville has done a complete 180 on Muhammad," Ramsey said. "I think we've done about a 160. There still are some Vietnam veterans and some hard-core Christians who are angry that he's a Muslim who protested the war and doesn't believe in Jesus Christ.

"But people do evolve. He's evolved, and we've evolved with him."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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