The Champ And The Banker

Scan 1The death of Muhammad Ali was the loss of one of the greatest gifts to the world that Louisville has ever cultivated. He was an intrinsic part of the fabric and history of the city, and his passing has rekindled the memories of countless citizens who yearn to hold on to their tiny bit of The Champ for as long as they can. In the case of Orson Oliver, former president of Bank of Louisville, his memory is his role in the construction of one of Ali’s most lasting legacies: the Muhammad Ali Center.

The multicultural center and award-winning museum opened in 2005, but Oliver recalls a fateful phone call over 10 years prior from Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali: “Lonnie called me and asked me to raise money. She wanted me to help get this project off the ground. They had just gotten back from a world tour, visiting places like India and China. They saw a lot of conflict in the world and felt that there was really no place on Earth to go and really resolve some of the conflicts.” According to Oliver, the concept for the Ali Center was entirely The Champ’s, despite his not being an architect or developer. As many know, Ali did not think small; in fact, he thought very large when it came to humanity and his hopes for the future.

“He wanted the Center to be populated with people who wanted to make humanity more human and better able to get along with human beings,” says Oliver. “When Lonnie called me, I said, ‘I can do that for The Champ. He’s a great guy. Let’s get together and see what we can do.’” Lonnie also enlisted the aid of other powerful Louisvillians including the mayor at the time, Jerry Abramson. Together, this influential and dedicated group included some of Louisville’s most powerful political and financial figures.

Despite his reputation and his inclusion in this group, Oliver remains modest: “The money that was raised was just the development money. It didn’t build the Center. It really didn’t do anything other than allow Ali to sit down with people who could develop money and concepts. It was the seed money.” The planning period for the Ali Center ended up being a long one, but Oliver remembers that from the town’s largest bank to the smallest business that had interest in the project, they met little resistance in the raising of funds: “Being a banker, you’re involved in a lot of community projects. Muhammad Ali was so powerful and had such a presence. I don’t recall anyone turning us down. Everyone wanted to be involved.”

There were talks to build the Center in New York, Chicago and even Los Angeles, but Oliver says that Ali always wanted it in his hometown. “He loved his hometown and wanted it in Louisville. He didn’t want it in New York. He would say, ‘People get lost in New York. They don’t get lost in Louisville,’” relates Oliver with a smile. And now, over 10 years later, the Muhammad Ali Center enjoys a perfect location downtown, right by the Ohio River.

Oliver plays down the significance of his role in this endeavor, but it doesn’t seem that Ali ever forgot him: “Every time I would see him at various functions, such as Derby and the holidays, he would always call me The Banker.” Muhammad Ali was a complex person in one sense, but he also had the ability to view complex things in a pure, distilled way. He did it with Oliver’s name, and he did it with the problems he saw in the world. “It all goes back to humanity,” says Oliver. “It was paradoxical. He was a fighter, but he thought that people also ought to be get along. He thought that there needed to be a place where people can go and resolve their differences. This is it.” VT