The fact that Muhammad Ali is remembered for both his radical rhetoric and his humility is a testament to his greatness.
The civil rights legend and boxing champion will be laid to rest on Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. But the outpouring of remembrances of his humor and his accessibility highlight the rarity of his larger than life personality.
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Remembrances have poured out from all corners of the globe: Basketball star Kareem Abdul -Jabbar in Time, photographer Neil Leifer in GQ, President Barack Obama in USA Today. The theme in all of the tales, whether from Ali’s youthful days in the 1960s to his softer, more subdued years as he fought Parkinson’s, is his remarkable ability to talk to anyone anywhere.
Obama refers to it in his commentary this week in USA Today:
“And we admire the man who, while his speech has grown softer and his movement more restricted by the advance of Parkinson’s disease, has never lost the ability to forge a deep and meaningful connection with people of all ages.
Asked why he is so universally beloved, he holds up a shaking hand, fingers spread wide, and says, “It’s because of this. I’m more human now. It’s the God in people that connects them to me.”
The magic of Ali is that you didn’t have to be famous to partake of his humanity. Upon hearing of the legend’s death, Austinite and marketing and brand consultant Kanwal Sharma posted a series of photos over the weekend on his Facebook page highlighting his decades long friendship with Ali, his wife Lonni Ali and Ali’s official photographer Howard Bingham.
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In 1996 Sharma was a marketing manager for Apple in California. Apple was in bankruptcy, yet to be saved by Steve Jobs. Sharma’s mission was to develop a global campaign to showcase how Apple products made a difference in the world with the help of 100 extraordinary people around the world with varying areas of influence — entertainers, athletes, scientists, astronauts. Sharma’s job was to persuade them to lend their names and time to the project without a budget to pay for endorsements. The campaign had a cause marketing element, uniting the participants with inner school children to break down barriers.
That is how he met Ali.
Sharma walked into the room for the first meeting and Ali and Bingham, who was nearly always at his side, were passing whoopie cushions back and forth for the entire meeting. And from that moment on a friendship was cemented, including pranks for which Ali was notorious, continuing even after Sharma left Apple and moved to Austin.
“[Ali’s] persona and cut across the cultural and generational gap,” Sharma said. “We all gravitated to him. All the athlete at the Olympics wanted to be with him. Little kids wanted to be with him, and he — the world’s most famous human being — wanted to be with him.”
That Olympics, of course, is most memorable for the moment with Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta. The stories, Sharma says, are too many to tell. But a few include: Being invited to the LA Marathon and Lonni and Ali put Sharma up in their suite for the night; performing with Ali in a powwow at Taos Pueblo, celebrating Sharma’s birthday; being at the Sydney Olympics and seeing how all the world’s young athletes wanted to be with him; being invited to walk the red carpet for the premier of the Ali movie; getting various prank calls, the best one being a call from Bo Derek who was with them for the Fight Night Gala in Phoenix.
Through it all the fun and good times, Sharma also recalls the deepness of Ali’s faith, even in relation to his Parkinson’s diagnosis which was already taking a toll.
“‘It is what God gave me,’ he told me,” said Sharma. “He said it “makes me observe life in a different way.” It is the kind of thing that has been written before in newspapers, but to see it first-hand was awe-inspiring.”
My family’s path crossed with Ali 26 years before Sharma. If anything the continuity proves that the warmth that Ali exuded was not a product of age or illness, but an extension of his true self.
My mother and father met at Virginia Tech in 1969 when the African American student population was still tiny, but extremely tight knit. My dad left Tech and joined the Air Force, but my mother still attended the events thrown by his fraternity Groove Phi Groove.
When black celebrities came to campus, they often stopped by the Groove house, which was also a general gathering place for black students. Ali stopped by one night in 1970 after speaking on campus. My mother was there that night, as was my godfather Jim Watkins.
Watkins, who was one of the founding members of the campus chapter, was interviewed about that night for for the Virginia Tech Black Alumni Association. The picture, at right, was taken that night with Ali on the telephone changing his flight plans — the plane was supposed to leave at 11 a.m. and Ali stayed with the students until 2 a.m. Watkins is standing next to Ali.
Here’s my godfather’s recounting:
I don’t know what group got him on campus to come speak but after he spoke, and everybody went on stage he was talking to people and these other white fraternities were talking to him trying to convince him to come to their parties they were having. Just three of us, the Groove brothers went right up there, everybody spoke, and he just looked like he couldn’t wait to speak to us. And when he spoke to us we were like we have this house in town, and we would like to have a get together. We weren’t even having a party that night because we were going to hear him.
But he came over and we got some brothers to come over to the house and he sat in the chair in the house and we all sat on the floor listening to him talk about the Muslim faith and different things that has happened to him over the years and he kept talking and he just kept talking answering questions. Next thing you know his bodyguard said we have this 11 o’clock flight and he said no I want to continue to talk….I gained more respect for that than from anything he’s ever done. He could never do wrong after that as far as I’m concerned. There were a lot of things he could have done that night instead of talk to us.