Ali had an aura. There’s no other way to say it. When you were with him, you basked in its glow. There was nowhere else you wanted to be. He focused on you and you felt supremely fortunate to be with him, to be part of his world.
As we traveled around, developing the ideas for the Muhammad Ali Center, I experienced moments that have become some of the most indelible and enduring highlights of my life. We went to civil rights museums, sports halls of fame, presidential libraries, in an effort to explore ways to communicate to generations to come the kaleidoscopic epic that was Ali’s evolution and his incredible impact on the world.
All along the way, he welcomed awestruck and always respectful admirers. They all had stories to tell of how Ali had changed their lives, and always for the better. Even those who admitted to having vilified him in the past had come to understand and love him. The old racist we met on the steps of a sports hall of fame who confessed that his prejudices had been turned around. The military man who finally respected his standing up for his beliefs. The fight fan who witnessed his transformation from the brash Louisville Lip to the undisputed genius of the ring. He charmed them, showed genuine interest in them, entertained them with warmth and magic tricks, jokes and playful sparring.
His struggles with Parkinson’s never deterred him. He was always Ali. Whether consuming prodigious quantities of food at our joyful dinners, gleefully demonstrating all the contradictions in the Bible (as opposed to the Koran), or feigning sleep at our design meetings (only to be jarred awake and asking what Lincoln said when he woke up in the middle of the night: “I freed who?”).
It all boiled down to humanity. To wanting the world to be a better place. It infected all who met him, and I like to think that it made me a better person, too. And in that we found the key to the Ali Center’s mission: to help people to be the best me possible. And it mirrored the famous commencement address he gave at Harvard University. “Me We”.