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Ali museum: Champion's house welcomes world

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Less than two weeks after Muhammad Ali went to a White House ceremony to receive the government's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he is getting a brand new place to display it.

Six stories high, that new repository is a 93,000-square foot showcase.

The Muhammad Ali Center, the glittering culmination of an $82 million project three years in construction and longer in fundraising fits and starts, will open officially Monday after dedication ceremonies this weekend.

Hereafter, Ali's hometown will have a grand-scale architectural tribute to counterbalance his bittersweet memory of a previous homecoming.

When he returned to Louisville from the 1960 Rome Olympics as Cassius Clay, a light-heavyweight boxing gold medalist, he was welcomed with a motorcade. Segregation, however, was still on the cultural menu. The returning hero was denied service at a whites-only restaurant.

This week, he is returning as Muhammad Ali, arguably the world's best-known athlete and goodwill ambassador. Welcoming events will include a gala party Saturday night and public dedication ceremony Sunday.

The Center's professed purpose is to be more than a museum, to teach and inspire through 10 theaters, 50 interactive stations and partnership educational programs with the United Nations and the University of Louisville.

Founders of the Center recognize, however, that visitors also want to see exhibits and memorabilia from Ali's grand and gaudy lifestyle as "The Greatest."

"Everything Muhammad kept is available to the Center," said his wife Lonnie Ali. "(That includes) the Olympic gold medal and Olympic torch he received in Atlanta in 1996, the chocolate brown Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible he had in Los Angeles, and the studded robe he got as a gift from Elvis Presley. And, of course, his Medal of Freedom is also here."

Other exhibits include a replica of his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., where visitors can learn to shadow-box and hit a speed bag, and a gallery of photographs taken by Howard Bingham, Ali's friend of more than four decades.

"Like a cat with nine lives, Ali has been up, down, over, down and up again," said Bingham, who has traveled the world with his friend. "When Ali lit that cauldron at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, everybody cried. It was a moment when it seemed the world was touched by everything he represented.

"This is an individual who cares about other people. He never lied to people. He was sincere, even it they didn't agree with him."

That said, Bingham explained what some might call Ali's biggest fib.

"I found out that he lost his 1960 gold medal, that he had not thrown it in the Ohio River in Louisville as he said he had," Bingham said. He forgives what he sees as Ali telling almost a literal "white lie" to dramatize his protest against the racism he experienced at that segregated restaurant.

If Ali simply misplaced the medal, which was replaced in Atlanta, it is among considerable lost treasures.

"A lot of memorabilia people thought Ali would have kept, he hasn't," Bingham said. "He doesn't have the title belts he won. He either lost them or gave them away."

In the years since teenager Ali left his Louisville hometown, he has lived in cities coast to coast. Chicago, where his conversion to the Muslim faith and his refusal to serve in the military during Vietnam were forged, is prominent among them.

Among Chicagoans who remember Ali, Ernie Terrell had a most contentious relationship. He and Ali fought for the heavyweight title in Houston in 1967, a year after their scheduled fight in Chicago was scrubbed. What has been oft retold about their title bout is that Ali repeatedly shouted "What's my name?" as he thrashed Terrell for calling him "Clay."

Recounting the dispute this week, Terrell said he and Ali were together at a promotional appearance for their bout. Terrell recalled answering a question by saying, "It's all right with me if it's all right with Clay," whereupon Ali took umbrage. "When he asked me why I had to call him Clay, I said, `That's what you told me your name was when I met you.' ... He called me an Uncle Tom and pushed me. His entourage tore my suit."

Despite the beating he took from Ali in the ring, Terrell says he holds no grudge.

"His promotional stuff for fights, especially taunting Joe Frazier, was sometimes carried too far," Terrell said. "But it worked for him."

He and Ali have had a friendly relationship since their fight

"We've hung out and done things together, but not as much as I'd like," Terrell said. "He came into my office a couple of months ago and met my staff, but I wasn't there.

"I'm sorry I missed him. And I'm really sorry to see him in the condition he is."

Questions about Ali's health, living with Parkinson's syndrome at 63, were rekindled recently when his daughter, boxer Laila Ali, told the Los Angeles Times she has noticed a deterioration in his condition, including slurred speech (Ali seldom speaks in public).

Lonnie Ali said she believes her husband "is doing well."

"Laila lives across the country and doesn't see her father so often, maybe three or four times a year, and she may see him on a bad day," she said.

Likewise, Michael Fox, president and chief executive officer of the Muhammad Ali Center, cited Ali being "at the top of his game" at the recent White House ceremony.

"He was humorous in his non-verbal way, making eye contact with the audience, the president and the media," Fox said. "His warmth and gentleness is seen in his eyes."

Thursday the Muhammad Ali Center still resembled a construction site on its downtown property near the Ohio River. Behind metal fencing, workers halfway up the six-story facade on a cherry picker still were arranging tiles that eventually will form huge images of Ali.

Parts of the center won't be completed until spring. But those coming to this weekend's dedication expect to see the heart of the project, including the man who seems larger than life.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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