LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — As Muhammad Ali’s youngest son rode in his father’s funeral procession through the streets of the city he adored, he noticed scores of children lining the route, pumping their fists, shouting “Ali! Ali!”
Asaad Amin Ali figured the children in attendance couldn’t possibly yet understand what they were experiencing Friday as Louisville and the world paid their respects to The Greatest.
“It’s not explainable, it was amazing,” said Asaad Amin Ali. “We looked out of the car and see people dancing and cheering and you also see people crying. (The children) are going to remember that for the rest of their lives.
Ali’s made one final journey through Louisville, his hometown, then was laid to rest in a cemetery he chose more than a decade ago. The burial was followed by a star-studded memorial service where the boxing great was eulogized as a brash and wildly charismatic breaker of racial barriers.
The more than three-hour memorial capped nearly a full day of mourning in Louisville for Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world who died last week at 74 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Family spokesman Bob Gunnell said when the motorcade pulled up outside Ali’s childhood home, they were already woefully behind schedule. They hadn’t planned to stop there, just drive by and wave.
But the street was jammed full of people who threw roses on the cars. Ali’s widow, Lonnie, asked if they could pause there.
“Let’s just stay here for a few seconds and let Muhammad enjoy this,” Gunnell recalled she said.
They made their way to Broadway where it looked like the whole city lined the streets. Gunnell looked back at a car behind him and saw actor Will Smith, his hand hung out the window, giving high fives to kids on the street.
There was so much activity in the week since Ali died, his family has had little time to reflect.
“Things are going to slow down, we’re really going to have a chance to sit and think about his passing. It’s going to be a tough time,” said Asaad Amin Ali.
Here are some other things we’ll remember from the celebration of Ali’s life:
THE FAMILY’S FAREWELL: Wearing a large, black hat that concealed her eyes, Lonnie Ali became the chief storyteller of her husband’s legacy.
She touched on how Ali wanted to be remembered in death, and how he helped plan his final goodbye.
“Some years ago during his long struggle with Parkinson’s in a meeting that included his closest advisers, Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” she said. “He wanted us to remind people who are suffering, that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up in segregation, and that during his early life, he was not free to be who he wanted to be.
“But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
She also urged the 15,000 in attendance at the public memorial at the KFC Yum! Center to follow Ali’s example, and to reflect upon his legacy and what Ali stood for during difficult times.
“He was sure-footed in his self-awareness, secure in his faith and he did not fear death,” she said. “Yet his timing is once again poignant. His passing and its meaning for our times should not be overlooked. As we face uncertainty in the world and divisions at home as to who we are as a people, Muhammad’s life provides useful guidance.
“Muhammad was not one to give up on the power of understanding the boundless possibilities of love and the strength of our diversity. He counted among his friends people of all political persuasions, saw truth in all faiths and the nobility of all races.”
THE GREATEST IMPRESSION: The memorial service was packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
It was comedian Billy Crystal, though, who brought the house down with impressions of Ali and his memories of his time with the champion.
“He was a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty,” said Crystal. “We’ve seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly.
“Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night.”
Crystal cracked everyone up with his career-making impersonation of a boastful, fast-talking Ali — and Ali’s foil, sportscaster Howard Cosell — and rhapsodized about the fighter’s charisma, outspokenness and talent in a way that brought the crowd to its feet.
He also was one of the many speakers who laced his eulogy with political barbs in this presidential campaign season. Ali was remembered as a fearless man of principle, someone who went from being one of the most polarizing figures of the 20th century to one of the most beloved, a source of black pride and a symbol of professional excellence.
“Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man thrilled us, angered us, confused us, challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace and taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people and not walls,” said Crystal.
THE BOYHOOD HOME: All week, parents have been bringing their children to Ali’s boyhood home, trying to explain his legacy in simple terms to children who live in a world much different than the one Ali rose to fame in.
As the procession neared the little pink house where Ali grew up, thousands of mourners along the route chanted, “Ali! Ali!” for the former heavyweight champion. The area around his home was crowded with scores of people — young and old; black, white and Asian — awaiting the processional carrying Ali’s casket.
Debra Brown, who grew up in another part of western Louisville, said she always admired how Ali has represented the city and wanted to be a part of the events to say goodbye. She said she brought her granddaughter to teach her about his boxing triumphs and his humanitarian causes outside the ring.
“She knows the name now. When she gets older, it will stick in her head. … When she sees his face, she’s going to remember Muhammad Ali.”
Brown says she hopes her granddaughter also will heed some of Ali’s teachings.
“You can be all that you can be; talk positive about herself.”
LOUISVILLE LOYALTY: Celebrities, politicians and athletes all came to honor Ali. But no one came out like the residents of his hometown, who put on a week of festivities to honor their most famous son.
More than 100,000 people filled the streets for The Champ’s final journey, which took a 19-mile route past Ali’s boyhood home and the museum that bears his name, via Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
Fans chanted like spectators at one of his fights, stood on cars, held up cellphones, signs and T-shirts, tossed flowers and scattered rose petals along the path of the hearse. Truckers honked their horns in salute. Others fell silent and looked on reverently as the champ went by.
“He stood up for himself and for us, even when it wasn’t popular,” said Ashia Powell, waiting at a railing for the hearse to pass by on an interstate highway below.
Takeisha Benedict and four co-workers were color-coordinated in orange “I Am Ali” T-shirts as they waited along Muhammad Ali Boulevard to pay their respects as the hearse went by.
“To me, he was a legend to this city and an example to people. I’m just glad to be part of this history of saying goodbye,” she said. “Opening it up and allowing us to be part of it, we’re so appreciative.”
Hundreds of people crowded the streets in front of the funeral home.
Mike Stallings, 36, of Louisville, brought his two young sons, and the family made signs to wave.
“I’ve been crying all week,” he said. “As big as he was he never looked down on people. He always mingled among the crowds.”
THE WORLD WATCHED: Ali designed the week’s remembrances himself, in a document so detailed it became known as “The Book.” He was steadfast in wanting it to be open to VIPs and regular people.
The services were streamed around the world, allowing all to watch “The Greatest’s” final chapter.
They witnessed moving tributes for the icon, and a joke from Clinton: “I can just hear Muhammad say now, ‘Well, I thought I should be eulogized by at least one president.'”
Kevin Cosby, pastor of a Louisville church, told the crowd that Ali “dared to affirm the power and capacity of African-Americans” and infused them with a “sense of somebodiness.” He likened Ali to such racial trailblazers as Jesse Owens, Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson.
“Before James Brown said, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,'” Cosby said. “Blacks and pretty were an oxymoron.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner, a political activist and editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun, brought the crowd to its feet four times with a fiery speech in which he referred to Ali’s refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War — a stand that cost him his boxing title.
“Ali stood up to immoral war, risked fame to speak truth to power. The way to honor him is to be like him today,” Lerner said, railing against anti-Muslim bigotry, drone attacks, the gap between rich and poor, and racist policing.
President Barack Obama was unable to make the trip because of daughter Malia’s high school graduation. But White House adviser Valerie Jarrett read a letter from the president at the service in which Obama said Ali helped give him the audacity to think he could one day be president.
“Muhammad Ali was America. Brash. Defiant. Pioneering. Never tired. Always game to test the odds. He was our most basic freedoms: religion, speech, spirit,” Obama said.