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The Greatest Comes Home

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THE SWEEP OF a person's life can be measured by many things. For example, if it is the weekend of your funeral, and a person wandering through the lobby of a hotel like the Brown in Louisville sees Kris Kristofferson being introduced to the president of Turkey, chances are you've touched people from many lands and from many walks of life. (It can also be assumed that you are a person of some influence if, on the morning of your memorial service, the president of Turkey bails on the event because he was not allowed to play a larger role in it.) There was a sweetness and gentleness to the way Louisville said goodbye to Muhammad Ali that wrapped itself around everything and everyone the way a steady breeze took the edge off the heat that otherwise sat upon the city like a shawl.

On Friday, as they took Ali from the funeral home to the cemetery in a procession that wound through the places in his life like a motorcade going through the stations of the cross, an estimated 100,000 people lined the sidewalks and the grassy islands along the wide boulevards, chanting as the hearse went by that steady chant that 42 years ago became Ali's trademark as he prepared to turn the world upside down in Zaire against the unbeatable George Foreman. It was, to be sure, an odd thing to chant as a funeral procession passes down the street.

Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye!

Ali, kill him. Ali, kill him.

And they all smiled their smiles, brighter than the sun.

The crowd was particularly thick at the corner of Ninth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, which used to be Walnut Street before a one-vote majority of the board of aldermen voted to change the name in 1978. There were parents with children, and children with dogs, and reporters from Germany and France trying to make themselves understood to the parents and to the children and (occasionally) to the dogs as well. A few of them drifted by Erasmo Pino, a strikingly tall man with a shaved head and a great sense of reverence about him.

Seventeen years ago, when he was 20, Pino won a lottery that allowed him to emigrate from Cuba to the United States. He was a gifted volleyball player who'd risen through the regimented national athletic program that Cuba had modeled after the one in the Soviet Union until he was good enough to play internationally and also to become a coach. But the Soviet Union collapsed and, with it, what was left of the Cuban economy that hadn't been shredded by the embargo that the United States had dropped on the island. In the mid-1990s, in the wake of a bad storm, Muhammad Ali came to Cuba to deliver food, clothing and medical supplies. Pino got a pair of shoes. Consequently, when he won the emigration lottery, Pino spent one month in Miami before setting out for Louisville, where he took a job in a Ford factory. He works there to this day.

"I know Louisville because of Muhammad Ali," he said. "When Muhammad Ali come to Cuba, with food and clothes for the Cuban people, and I got my shoes, I knew he was a great man. And when I come to this country, and I am in Miami, I tell people I want to go to Louisville, Kentucky, because that is where Muhammad Ali is from. So Louisville is my home now. It is my city because it was the city of Muhammad Ali."

The cortege made a right hand turn, now going west, right in front of Erasmo Pino. The hearse carrying the mortal remains of Muhammad Ali turned off Ninth Street onto what once was Walnut Street and is now and forever Muhammad Ali Boulevard. All around Pino, the chant rose again.

Ali, bomaye!

And all the corners of all the streets sang with happiness on the day Ali was laid to rest, gone to glory, and damned if all the smiles and the sunshine didn't make the whole bright day seem like a prayer.

The people of Louisville lined the streets and chanted: Ali, bomaye! Ali, bomaye! And they all smiled their smiles, brighter than the sun.

What's your Ali story?

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