CRAWFORD | Reflections on Ali, and how best to honor his memory
Eric Crawford talks about writing about Muhammad Ali from a distance, and how Louisville might best honor its most famous native after his death.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Writing about Muhammad Ali, for me, always has been about trying to capture his reflection.
I was too young to cover any of his fights. When I was born in August of 1968, Ali wasn't fighting at all, having had his boxing licenses revoked for refusal to be inducted into the U.S. military.
I remember my father telling me about meeting him once, and how Ali's hand swallowed up his own. I watched Ali on television. I watched his verbal sparring with commentator Howard Cosell.
Ali's story is, first and foremost, in the hands of the great writers and filmmakers who watched him, and who knew him. Fortunately, Ali was all too happy to spend time with writers and reporters. Dave Kindred, Billy Reed, Jerry Izenberg, Bill Nack, David Remnick, George Plimpton, Thomas Hauser, Cosell and many others, the list of journalists and writers who can spin you an hour or a week's worth of first-hand Ali lore is long -- and their ability to do it unmatched.
So what you get here is reflection. You get a fleeting image against the glass, seen darkly. You don't get the man in full color. You get an interpretation, but not the message from one who sat at Ali's feet, or on the bed next to him, or in the hotel room with him, or in the passenger seat of his car.
As a columnist in this city, I knew one day I would be faced with the challenge of writing about his life. But as someone who experienced, comparatively speaking, so little of it, I didn't look forward to that. If you get old enough, you'll find yourself more and more writing about people who have passed away. I've written enough obituary-type columns to fill a book. You are never satisfied that you have done the person justice. And Ali is the most impossible of all.
I met Ali on a couple of occasions, but never when he was able to speak. So I can't write about the force of his personality. Yet I saw the eyes of athletes younger even than me get wide when he approached. I saw the phones come out and the instant realization that this was an historic moment in their lives, something they could tell children and grandchildren: I met Ali.
They knew there was something more. This is a generation that already is losing what guys like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird meant to the NBA. For them, history is something that happened five days ago, not 50 years ago. But Ali is different. They have heard his story. If they don't know his history, they know how much he means to history.
One reason they know is that Ali appreciated history, and his place in it. He was less about building a brand than making a difference. He spoke out.
What's the first rule of polite public discourse and family gatherings? You don't talk about politics or religion? Ali talked about both. He spoke of God as easily as he spoke of his footwork. He wasn't afraid of the subject.
Several young people who have read things he said in recent days have asked me, "Did he really say that?" The things he said were bold and candid and sometimes blunt to the point of painful. He talked trash as well as truth, sometimes at the same time. People don't talk like that today.
Athletes today don't want you that close. They have high-dollar shoe contracts and endorsements of all kinds. They have shareholders to satisfy. They have images to protect.
The amount of access Ali allowed to himself is, by today's standards and practices, astounding. He had cameras around him seemingly all the time. Still photographers, video cameras, documentary cameras. When those cameras weren't around, the documentary I Am Ali revealed two years ago, he was making his own audio recordings, hundreds of hours of conversations with friends, children, politicians, journalists, phone calls, taped from 1976 to 1985.
On one of those, he said, "I am history conscious. I'm always thinking about history. . . . If anyone wonder why, me, Muhammad Ali, is making these tapes, is because history is so beautiful. At the time we're living in life, we don't realize."
His daughter, Hana Ali told me, "He wanted to record his own legacy, what was going on behind the scenes. I always tell him, 'Daddy you created the world's first reality show, if you think about it.' So he was ahead of his time, and because he loved life so much, and because he appreciated life so much, and being a father is his most prized role in life, that he enjoyed it. With Laila and I growing up, he got to be home more, because he wasn't boxing as much. So he actually got to see and feel what it was like to be at home as a father with your children every day. So he had more time and he wanted to record that, he thought it was so beautiful. So that's why, luckily, thank God, there are so many recordings because of it. And everything going on at the time, the phone ringing constantly off the hook, and everything that was going on in the world, the crises, the '79 hostage crisis and the government calling him to open the lines of communication with the hostages, him traveling the world talking to different celebrities, talking to his mother, his father, it's just a beautiful legacy that he left, with his voice, right at the time his voice was beginning to fade. It's amazing."
Ali spoke not only more authoritatively and courageously than athletes of today, but than most politicians today.
We live in a dangerous time to voice opinion. The social media shamers can tear down the reputation of even good people with alternate opinions in the time it takes to type 140 characters and push a button. Our ability to stomach people with opposing opinions, political or otherwise, is diminishing. But Ali faced no less. He lost his livelihood for three years for a belief -- and a highly unpopular one at that. The rest of us have no excuse.
Ali wasn't interested in image so much as he was people. He was loud and opinionated, to be sure. He talked trash like no athlete before or since. But he also talked to people. I saw an interview with Jim Brown in which the great running back said Ali was always telling him to get out of the car, take a walk with him and talk to people.
Gene Kilroy, Ali's former business manager, told of the morning after Ali's second fight with Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden.
"The next day they have a press conference, so we walked from the Essex House, Central Park East, all the way down to Madison Square Garden," Kilroy said in I am Ali. "He looked good. And he knew he looked good, he could look in the mirror -- he never seen a mirror he didn't like -- by the time we got to Madison Square Garden, there must have been a thousand people behind us. As I looked around, I realized, Muhammad Ali was no mere fighter. He was king of the world."
Of the reflections off his life, his gravitation to people, his willingness to let them touch him, to be inside the ropes, and his willingness to take risks to make a difference are the most distinct in my eyes.
But there are others. The reflection of Ali's life isn't always a positive one. And he didn't do a single thing to tell anyone otherwise. One thing I have admired at the Ali Center is that his shortcomings, mistakes and critics are mentioned along with his voluminous accomplishments. He might not have harbored any talk in his prime about him being anything less than the greatest of all time, but time brought him a humility that could be surprising.
His silence had a profound effect on his legacy. His daughters told me in an interview in 2014 that if they called him early, they could still talk to him, clearly and casually. And when they did, he was still the old Ali. He had joked within the last several years with his daughter Maryum about winning his title back a fourth time.
But the rest of us couldn't hear that. That public silence, in a way, allowed people to fill in the gaps. People could impute anything, however noble or right they hoped for, into the space left by his absence of words. It's amazing how often silence can be wisdom.
But his voice was missed. In some ways, especially now, in this uncertain world, it is a terrible absence. It's tragic that once Ali gained the wisdom of life, he gradually lost the ability to share it.
I asked Kilroy about how much the world could use Ali's voice amid the present struggles.
"Oh my God," he said. "You know. He was received by kings, queens, presidents. Everybody loved him because he had that innocence of boyhood but still had the dignity of man. He wasn't a politician, he was just a real person. We need more real people in the world today, than the hustlers and liars. We need honesty. That's the only way we're going to exist in this world is honesty, without that, we're going to have problems all over."
On Friday, Ali's funeral procession will turn down Muhammad Ali Boulevard and drive through Louisville's West End, through his old neighborhood, and then back down Broadway to the KFC Yum! Center for his funeral service.
It will wind its way through some of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods, during a year in which the city is on its way to setting another record for homicides. The blight of Ali's day was racism and segregation. The blights of today are poverty and dwindling opportunities, fueled by substandard education, resulting in a lack of hope.
There's a great deal of talk about how the city might further honor Ali in the wake of his death. Some have suggested a statue (an improper suggestion to most Muslims, who reject statues except the case of a deity) or some other gesture. Even when it was built, I said that the arena that now will be the site of his funeral service should have, in some way, have borne his name. That would be even more appropriate now.
But in a more important sense, we don't need to build any monuments. We need to stand for something. We need to support the Ali Center, and the values Ali himself chose for it to promote: confidence, conviction, dedication, giving, respect and spirituality.
Here's how Ali can be honored. Address the failure of education, especially for those in our poorest areas and in our inner city. Educate those kids and their parents, if need be. Restore and rejuvenate those neighborhoods. A great many well-meaning programs have been enacted since the days when Ali was looking up at the stars with his brother Rahaman in their Grand Avenue yard and dreaming of becoming the greatest of all time.
I don't know how many young men and women there look up at the stars and dream anymore. But I do know what efforts have been undertaken haven't been good enough. The failure of education in the poor areas of this community is the greatest failing of this city today, and that failure reaches back decades, to the point where it seems there are far too many kids in this city who have little to no chance, and far too many adults bent on preserving the current system than in moving heaven and earth to fix this fundamental problem.
The passage of Ali's body through those areas ought to serve as a reminder that once given the tools, Ali was the first in the gym and the last out of it, that he never deviated from working, studying his craft, learning the sport, to become the greatest. But it wasn't until he got those tools that he was able to build on the foundation of his dreams. Today, Ali can supply the dreams. It's up to the rest of us to help supply the tools.
If this city wants to honor Ali, it will begin to do right by those children, no matter how great the challenge. We can have all the bourbon bars and restaurants and bike lanes we want. If we continue to fail to equip those kids with the education, dedication, and respect they need to achieve, then it won't matter. Violence, gangs and drugs will win. High-rise hotels are fine, but if we can find the resources to build those while not immediately rectifying a shortage of 65,000 affordable housing units, where are our priorities?
And since Ali spoke in plain terms on race I will take this opportunity to do the same -- I'm not talking about white entrepreneurs moving into impoverished urban areas and establishing moneymaking enterprises or gentrifying those areas. I'm talking about finding ways for people who live in those communities to rebuild from the inside out. You want a lasting monument? Make Louisville a model. Do what Ali did. Don't worry about building images. Worry about making a difference. That's a challenge to us all, myself included.
At least, that's how it looks to me, from reading the reflection of Ali's life off those who knew him, and the words he left us.
I didn't know Ali. I only know what I have seen reflected in his words and deeds, and in the words and creations of those who knew and followed him. Fortunately, Ali shared himself enough to leave a rich reflection. It's up to each of us to honor it, as best we can.
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