LOUISVILLE — After the 17-car motorcade and four shadowing helicopters left the funeral home, after the fans who lined the arterial Bardstown Road turned the thruway into a 3 1 /2-mile receiving line, after a final round of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” cheers and tears and hugs between strangers, Pat Murphy walked into the street with a clay boxing figure in hand.
“I tell people it’s made of Cassius Clay,” the 56-year-old doctor said.
In middle school, Murphy made this piece of art to honor his hometown hero, Muhammad Ali. On Friday morning, as the body of Ali cruised through his beloved Louisville one last time, Murphy saw a cluster of rose petals on the road, placed his Ali model atop them, took a picture and lingered in the moment.
“Most people in Louisville have a Muhammad Ali story,” Murphy said. “There are subtle stories. It’s him visiting a hospital. It’s a picture that he was enthusiastic about taking. It’s the time he took to brighten your day in any way he could. We were fortunate to have him as Louisville’s native son.”
Over the past week, the world has mourned an icon who transcended his sport and transformed from The Greatest to The People’s Champion. On Friday, however, he officially returned home in a spiritual and literal sense. For more than 50 years, as Ali became a global force, Louisville had to share its champion. Now he rests in his rightful place: in this metropolis along the Ohio River.
“LOUISVILLE’S ALI,” the sign in the windshield of city bus No. 18 read.
It works as both a contraction and a possessive. Louisville is Ali. And Ali, the city’s treasured son, belongs to Louisville.
“I think Louisville saw him as two Alis,” said Murphy, a Louisville native. “Obviously, there is the Ali the world knows. But there’s another Ali that Louisville knows. For a city, this is not a huge place. It’s kind of a small town at times. We know humble beginnings and values and conviction in our beliefs and never forgetting where you came from, and that’s the Muhammad Ali that most of us in Louisville know.”
I grew up in Paducah, Ky., about 220 miles from Louisville. My father was raised in Louisville, and both my parents and paternal grandparents live there now. Ali is so synonymous with this region that I can’t remember a time in which I didn’t know who he was.
Mommy. Daddy. Ali. Okay, maybe he isn’t quite that high on the list of people that Kentuckians recognize as babies, but he certainly feels like family.
I visited in Louisville’s West End, near his childhood home, and asked a neighbor what Ali means to the city. It turned into a group conversation, with people emptying the dictionary with adjectives.
“He’s our pride.”
“He’s our confidence.”
“He’s the best of us.”
“He’s our self-esteem . . . our humor . . . our humility . . . our fight . . . our joy . . . our ego . . . our conscience . . . our humanity.”
Said Rabbi Joe Rapport of The Temple in Louisville: “Muhammad Ali was the heart of this city. He was our heart. And our heart beats here still.”
It’s amazing that Ali could be so famous and personal at once. As the motorcade proceeded through the city and later as Ali was buried in a private ceremony at Cave Hill Cemetery and celebrated in a 22,000-seat arena, intimate stories sustained the estimated crowd of 100,000 that stood on the streets and alternated between grief and appreciation.
Frank Wethington was one of many people who brought a framed picture commemorating when he met Ali. Wethington, who lives on the street next to the A.D. Porter & Sons Funeral Home that took care of Ali’s body, gripped an image of Ali pretending to let Wethington punch him. Ali loved to take pictures posed that way, with the average man hitting the champ. Wethington says the photo is from 1990, six years after Ali announced he had Parkinson’s disease. Ali looked healthy, strong and, to use his favorite description, pretty.
Wethington and his family met Ali in the neighborhood of Buechel, where Ali’s mother, Odessa Clay, owned a home later in her life. It’s the same neighborhood where he started his last drive Friday.
“He was one of the friendliest people I ever saw,” said Wethington, 72. “Whether you were a child, a grown-up or old, when you met him, he had his arm around you.”
When Ali was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War in 1967, when he raged against the United States’ hypocrisy and enraged the masses and was stripped of his heavyweight title and the prime of his fighting career, Louisville was left to try to understand and protect its champion. It wasn’t easy. Just as Ali evolved in thought and perception, Louisville evolved, too. While Ali remains polarizing for some of his beliefs, his personality and knack for being on the right side of history allowed him to do what’s hardest in life: change people’s minds.
“My generation, at first, we were a little bit perturbed at him when he refused the draft,” Wethington said. “Now a lot of people in my generation wishes we did, too.”
Ali was consistent. He never wavered. And whenever he did something special, he always included Louisville in the celebration.
“Muhammad never stopped loving Louisville,” said his wife, Lonnie. “And we know that Louisville loves Muhammad.”
When they were teenagers, Joe Driscoll, 73, would run into Ali often. Ali used to make a little money cleaning after school at Presentation Academy, a Catholic high school for girls. Driscoll came to Presentation every weekday to pick up his sister, and he would have a moment with 15-year-old Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.
Ali would tell him about running two miles a day and learning how to box during sessions at Columbia Gym with Louisville police officer Joe Martin. They weren’t close, but Driscoll enjoyed listening to his peer.
About 10 years later, Ali was the heavyweight champion and refusing to go to war. Driscoll was a college graduate and about to go to war. Driscoll didn’t resent Ali, however. He knew him too well, or at least he believed he knew him too well.
One day, Driscoll was walking down Walnut Street, and there was Ali, cruising and talking to people like he always did. Ali kept walking toward Driscoll. He didn’t know whether the champ would recognize and remember him. As he thought about saying hello, Ali spotted Driscoll and said, “Hi, Joe.”
They spent a good while together that afternoon, just being two Louisville natives, walking down Walnut Street, which is now known as Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
His street. His city.
Ali is home again, home for eternity.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
More on Muhammad Ali: