`Greatest' story under one roof

December 04, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Louisville, Ky.-- --Consider this an open invitation to visit the new Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. You won't regret it -- even if you still call him Cassius Clay out of stubborn principle, or if you're not that interested in the trembling old man that occasionally shows up at ringside of big fights.

Go see the museum to Ali. The chamber of commerce isn't paying me to say this. In a moment of geographic inspiration, I realized last week that Cincinnati, where the Ravens played last Sunday, was less than a two-hour drive from Louisville.

To say the day I spent at the Ali Center was better in every way than the afternoon spent watching the Ravens is to damn the museum and the man with the faintest of praise.

Bring comfortable shoes. Bring tissues. (An entire room is devoted to his lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and you won't make it through dry-eyed.) Bring one of those little anti-bacterial lotion bottles, if you're that type, because there are lots of screens and displays to touch.

Bring a cell phone to call 911, just in case, if you try boxing Ali's shadow or taking lessons from his daughter, Laila (on tape), in the interactive boxing exhibits.

Also, bring an open mind, because no matter what you think you know about Ali, you'll learn that you don't know it all. Bring a healthy skepticism for nearly all modern-day athletes. Bring a newfound respect for Angelina Jolie, seriously.

Bring money, to get in and to park and to eat, because you'll get dizzy from walking through it all, and from the sheer sensory overload.

Last, bring a mouthpiece. Not because you're liable to get hit with a left jab, but because there's at least one thing in the Ali Center to make each visitor grit his or her teeth.

For some, it might be the displays dedicated to Vietnam and all that swirled around it. For others, it might be the section featuring the statements and beliefs that Ali, and others, have admittedly come to regret in the ensuing decades: his views of women, white people and members of other religions. It might be a film clip of George Wallace, or it might be a clip of Malcolm X.

For many, it's the replica lunch counter, circa the Jim Crow 1950s, complete with the two make voices shouting at you to get out, you're not welcome, they don't serve your kind here.

Yet when that happens, the mind can be eased by a short walk to an area labeled "Spirituality" -- which serves as part-mental spa and part-final step on Ali's journey (even dealing with how he's come to terms with his Parkinson's disease). To go there is to go full circle with Ali. The center brings his life full circle.

Through five floors and 93,000 square feet, one tends to forget that he once was just a motor-mouthed 12-year-old ranting to a nearby cop about whupping whoever had stolen his bike. His story, all of it, from before that through the five decades after, is enclosed within. The story of the country and the world in which he lived is there, too.

The center presents Ali in his totality, positive and negative, true and perceived; it can be argued that this has never been done before. Better yet, it puts his life in context. So much about his life that has only been told in bits and pieces, and as they are put in their proper place, the background is laid down with them.

In fact, one candidate for the most moving aspect of the museum is one of the first encountered, in the pavilion "Confidence" (one of five such pavilions, including "Spirituality," that illustrate the values that help make him who he is). On a panoramic screen, images of Ali as the brash young man, telling the world how pretty he was and how he was The Greatest, are interspersed with those of black men and women of all ages and levels of fame, speaking of how, in the era he grew up, they would look in the mirror and "don't see nothing I like."

Bring tissues for that, too.

The biggest tear-jerker of all, though, is in the lobby, on a wall displaying the biggest contributors to the center, from $5,000 to $1 million. The expected corporate, philanthropic and civic names are there. So is Lennox Lewis' ($250,000 or more). His is the only athlete's name on the wall. (David Robinson is listed on the Web site with the Board of Advisers.)

Jolie's name is on the wall, up high. (She and Ali have been honored by the United Nations for their humanitarian works.) Celine Dion's is there. But, as a few columnists who attended the opening ceremonies two weeks ago noted, no Tiger Woods, no Michael Jordan, not even Jim Brown. According to The New York Times and the Daily News, Ali's wife, Lonnie, solicited the big-name athletes for the reported $80 million project. Lewis, the Jamaican-born British citizen, is the only one who stepped up.

They should all give $9 -- the admission fee. The invitation is open to them, too. They need it more than anybody.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Points after -- David Steele

So, Tony Dungy is getting ripped for something he might think about doing a month from now. Him getting little or no credit for the Colts' undefeated season, I expected. But this, I never saw coming.

Meanwhile, we're down to one plausible explanation for why Matt Millen has kept his job for four years. It involves Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Lions owner William Clay Ford and a horse's head.

As embattled as they are, the Ravens should consider it a disappointment if they don't get Texans coach Dom Capers fired by tomorrow night.

The ACC/Big Ten Challenge has been fun, but lopsided (ACC, 7-0). The time is right to resurrect the ACC/Big East Challenge. The Big East is finally up to the task again.

One of the most unfortunate offshoots of the Muhammad Ali legacy: At a news conference last week to hype his rematch with Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor brought a crying baby doll.

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