One last time, Muhammad Ali came to the people

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One last time, Muhammad Ali came to the people. And the people came to him.

They began coming to Grand Avenue, site of Ali’s boyhood home, shortly after sunrise Friday. Mostly media and cops and T-shirt vendors at first, but then the pilgrims began to arrive.

B.J. Poole and her family unfolded their camping chairs and sat down next to the curb on Grand at 7:45 a.m. They drove six hours from Decatur, Ga., Thursday to be here in time for this, Ali’s funeral procession, a marathon route through his hometown.

“I’m doing this for my daddy,” said Poole, a hair stylist. “My father loved this man. When he fought, you had to watch, and when he spoke, you had to listen. He was an outspoken person. He was bold. He was fierce.”

Before too long a German television crew happened upon Poole and her family.

“You tell everybody in Germany we said hello,” she said, waving to the camera. “We are saying goodbye to The Champ.”

Driving in from Georgia to sit in the sun on a hot day and watch a hearse and several limousines roll past for a minute or two – that speaks to the depth of feeling for Muhammad Ali.

But then you meet F. Peter Gaskins Jr., CEO of an office supply company in Las Vegas. A couple of days after Ali died last Saturday, Gaskins made room on his calendar to fly to Louisville for this. There he was on Grand Avenue, sweating in his white dress shirt and black pants, waiting for the procession.

“He was my childhood idol,” Gaskins said. “I decided at the last minute, I’m going to do this. I’ve never been to Kentucky, but I wanted to come here [to Ali’s boyhood home at 3022 Grand Ave.] for the symbolism.”

Gaskins also attended Barack Obama’s first-term inauguration in January 2009. He said this experience was similarly important.

“I was impressed by Ali converting to Islam and standing up,” Gaskins said. “He was never quiet. I admired that about him.”

Poole and Gaskins went to extraordinary lengths to simply be here, amid a sprawling crowd on a small street in Louisville’s predominantly African-American West End.

But then you meet Dipo Akabashorun, and you really appreciate what this all means.

Akabashorun is from Nigeria. He had a trip planned to the United States in July, but when Ali died he tore up those plans and came here to take his place among the throng on Grand.

“I idolized this man,” he said. “When I was 9 years old, I woke up at 4 a.m. to watch the Rumble In The Jungle [Ali’s epic 1974 upset of George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire]. I fell in love with him.

“I had to come here for this.”

The hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali passes in front of his boyhood home on Friday. (AP)

More than any other athlete before or since, Ali belonged to the world. His global appeal is all the more amazing when you consider that there was no World Wide Web during his boxing days, no instantaneously easy way for fans to connect with him or watch his bouts. To many, he was partly myth and legend.

But The Greatest also brought the gift of himself to all parts of the planet. He fought in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in the Caribbean. He won an Olympic gold medal in Rome, his first heavyweight title in Miami, his second in Zaire, his third in New Orleans. He was everywhere.

Yet to the vast pride of the people in this city, the global icon kept part of himself at home. He was born a Louisvillian in 1942, and he was buried a Louisvillian on Friday. Choosing Cave Hill Cemetery as his final resting place was Ali’s final gift to a city that loves him so.

And so the vast majority of the folks who filled the sidewalks and yards of Grand Avenue were locals – many from right there in the neighborhood. Ali touched so many people that just about every Louisvillian over the age of, say, 40 has a personal story about him.

"Back in the day he was just running around here in his wagon," said Linda Montgomery-Robinson, whose parents still live on Grand. "He babysat us. We called him 'G.G.' and I didn’t even know why. Somebody finally told me that stood for 'Golden Gloves.' "

Yvonne Bridges said that when Ali babysat at her house in the neighborhood, he didn’t even ask for money.

“All he wanted was bologna sandwiches,” she said.

After Ali converted to Islam, he would go down to 28th and Greenwood Avenue – five blocks from his home – and hand out copies of the Quran. His very public name change and switch of religions made some uneasy. So, of course, did his refusal of induction in the U.S. Army in protest of the war in Vietnam.

But you would not find a soul on Grand Avenue Friday who took issue with Ali’s controversial 1960s stance. Not even Tyrone Beck.

Beck did two tours of duty in Vietnam, one in 1967-68 and one in 1969-70. He was a member of the 229th Assault Helicopter Division of the First Air Cavalry, which means he saw some serious action.

Beck served 20 years in the Army before retiring in 1985. Wearing a Vietnam Veteran hat, a Louisville Cardinals T-shirt and blue Dickeys work pants, he held an old-school camera in his left hand and pulled a chair to the curb to wait for the procession.

"No, I didn't hold it against him," Beck said of Ali's refusal of military service. "I respect people's beliefs.

"My wife knows his family – they went to the same schools. I met him after he got his jaw broken [in Ali’s famous 1973 fight with Ken Norton]. He was still trying to talk with his jaw wired shut. He was saying, ‘I’m going to get [Norton].' "

Beck laughed.

“He got him, alright.”

Ali won a rematch with Norton six months later, and then beat him again in 1976.

For most of the residents of Louisville’s West End, this has been an overwhelming week. Like many cities its size, there are rather clear lines of segregation – a great many white Louisvillians have never been west of downtown, which is where much of the black population resides. But on Muhammad Ali's funeral day, there probably were more white faces on Grand Avenue than at any time in the past 60 years.

In recent years, violence has escalated on this side of town. Louisville had 47 homicides as of June 1, on pace for the most ever in a single year, and many of them occur in the West End. In fact, someone was murdered just four blocks west of the Ali boyhood home in late February.

“[The murders] used to be a weekend thing,” said Yvonne Bridges. “Now it seems like it’s every day.”

“Sometimes I sit on my porch and I just cry,” said Dr. Ruth Wilson, who lives a couple of blocks away. “These young men don’t have anyone to validate them, to tell them they can be 'The Greatest.' ”

Pallbearers Will Smith (at right), Mike Tyson (center), and Lennox Lewis look on during Ali's memorial service. (Getty)

Whether it is coincidence or reverence, the city has reported relatively few violent crimes since Ali died last week. “We hope this brings this community together,” said Doug Ash, a Jefferson County Public Schools bus driver.

“I hope he inspires people to stop the [expletive] – stop the violence and the anger,” said Sean Waddell, whose father, Jan, was Ali’s cousin and a pall bearer Friday. “Less violence. No murders. We can do it. He instilled in us that you can do anything you want to do. His legacy is beautiful, it really is.”

If any athlete can inspire greater peace, love and understanding, it is Muhammad Ali. His impact was so vast and significant, he makes other global athletic icons look ordinary. Michael Jordan is a cardboard cutout in comparison. LeBron James and David Beckham and Tiger Woods and Usain Bolt are stick figures.

Ali is the full measure of what an athlete can be. The unmatched full measure.

That is why they came from everywhere to Grand Avenue on Friday, to say goodbye to the singular Greatest. When the phalanx of police cars finally led the cortege of black vehicles down the block, the people chanted his name and threw flowers on the hood of the hearse.

Then they were gone, moving slowly east to and through downtown, headed toward Cave Hill Cemetery six miles away. The T-shirt salesmen kept doing business, and the Ali childhood home museum opened up for tour groups. B.J. Poole packed up her camp chair, and Tyrone Beck put away his camera.

It was time to move on. But everyone who crowded onto Grand Avenue to say goodbye Friday will take that stirring final memory of Muhammad Ali home with them, and be better for it.