Muhammad Ali honored in Louisville: ‘he perfected gifts that we all have’

Family, famous friends, imams, pastors, rabbis and a former president of the United States took turns speaking about Ali in his Kentucky hometown Friday

Thousands of Muhammad Alis admirers, from the unknown to the powerful, packed a Louisville arena on Friday to honor the great boxer and humanitarian.

They followed a script outlined by Ali himself, and the service bore his signature dedication to openness and inclusion.

Family, famous friends, imams, pastors, rabbis and a former president of the United States took turns at the podium, as did black and white, young and old. They stood before a backdrop of the American flag on one side and on the other the Olympic flag, with its interlocking rings that represent the varied nations of the Earth.

Ali, before his death a week ago, had dictated that the service be open to all. More than 15,000 people poured into the KFC Yum Center to fulfill that wish.

The service began with a reading of the Quran that included an admonition to repel ugliness with beauty. Louisville pastor Kevin Cosby followed with a story about how before James Brown said Im black and proud, Muhammad Ali said: Im black and Im pretty.

It was an act of subversion in the 1960s, Cosby said, because Ali loved black people when black people had trouble loving themselves.

The crowd remained mostly silent, but occasionally burst into a cheer Ali! Ali! Ali! that shook the floor of the arena. I can just hear Muhammad now, saying, Well I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president, said former president Bill Clinton, drawing a laugh.

Growing reflective, Clinton said he would never forget when Ali took the last steps to light the Olympic flame when I was president, and recalled: I was still weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake, and his legs shake, and knowing, by God, he was going to make those last few steps.

The flame would be lit, the fight would be won, his spirit would be affirmed, he said. During the second half of Alis life, the former president said, he refused to be imprisoned by a disease that kept him hamstrung longer than Nelson Mandel was kept in prison in South Africa.

That is, in the second half of his life, he perfected gifts that we all have. Every single solitary one of us have gifts of mind and heart, he added. We should honor him by letting our gifts go out into the world.

The solemn celebration mixed with levity, brought in party by actor Billy Crystal. He met Muhammad Ali more than four decades ago during Crystals first television appearance doing an impression of Ali. He was the most perfect athlete you ever saw, Crystal said, and then smiled. And those were his own words.

More poignantly, he recalled a time Ali traveled with him to Jerusalem, where Crystal had won an award. The most famous Muslim man in the world, honoring his Jewish friend, he said.

Crystal took a jab at Trump: He taught us its better to build bridges between people than walls.

The crowd leapt to their feet during a talk by the rabbi Michael Lerner, when he said: We will not tolerate politicians putting down Muslims, in a clear reference to Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump.

We know what its like to be demeaned, Lerner said.

Earlier in the day, Alis hearse had made a slow procession to the Cave Hill cemetery. People lined the streets of downtown Louisville, some mournful, some celebratory, and when they tried to describe the scene they returned to one word again and again: History.

On Ninth Street, the hearse carrying the body of Ali moved slowly. As it passed, the crowd burst into a full-throated shout of Ali! Ali!, as though to wake the great boxer from sleep.

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