One night, about 15 years ago, my son called me on his cell phone from New York. He had just stepped out of a restaurant in SoHo and said the most famous person on Earth was outside on the sidewalk. I didnâ€™t have to think about who it was for four seconds. The answer was that obvious.
Ali and I were the same age. I followed his career â€“ and his life â€“ for more than 50 years. What a ride it was.
Cassius Clay first entered our consciousness in the summer of 1960 as part of the U.S. Olympic team in Rome. It encompassed, probably for the first time, a preponderance of African-Americans: made-for-television athletes like the lovely and elegant runner Wilma Rudolph, the remarkable long-jumper Ralph Boston, the decathlete Rafer Johnson, basketball legend Oscar Robertson and the 18-year-old light heavyweight gold medalist Cassius Clay.
Clay stood out for the lovably outrageous things he said. But as he turned professional, â€œoutrageousâ€ began to subsume â€œlovable.â€ He was boastful, dismissive of opponents, overt with his lifestyle â€“ all things we were not accustomed to from athletes.
All an act to promote his fights? If it was, it worked. We watched, with some even hoping his â€œLouisville Lipâ€ would get shut â€“ even by the thuggish, mob-controlled heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.
When Clay upset Liston in February 1964, many were shocked. The shock became concern when, shortly afterward, he announced his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
By 1967, when Ali refused to stand up for the draft, it only fueled the tension, but it made him a hero to many â€“ especially to young idealists who were also refusing the call to arms in Vietnam.
When he stood in solidarity with other black athletes â€“ Bill Russell, Jim Brown, the young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar â€“ it made us realize how black anger and bitterness had been simmering in sports for years and how blind we had been.
When he stuck to his principles and was forced to relinquish his championship, career and earnings, he became an inspiration to young people of all races.
And then, when he came back, vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, when he fought Joe Frazier in 1971 in what, for once, truly did live up to its claim as the Battle of the Century, he was truly a hero to all. He had become the emblem of young Americaâ€™s dissatisfaction, frustration and anger â€“ no matter who you were.
But then again, he had always transcended normal rules. He was more than a man. He was Ali.
Later in his life, the effects of Parkinsonâ€™s disease quieted the Louisville Lip and seemingly made him a silent symbol of grace and dignity. I sat in the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996 when he was the surprise choice to light the flame. His hand shook involuntarily from his disease, but at that moment, he stood as the single definition of American pride: a black man chosen to represent his country in its ultimate national athletic participation in a city that would once have forced him to use a separate entrance and sit in a â€œblacks onlyâ€ section of the stands.
Mission accomplished. VT