Silent Ali still commands the spotlight

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Some 31 years after Louisville welcomed native son Muhammad Ali back from his "Rumble In The Jungle" victory over George Foreman, the city's faithful descended again on the Belvedere in downtown "Looville" on Sunday to witness the public dedication of the $82 million Muhammad Ali Center.

A project 13 years in the making, the opening of the six-story center was ushered in with three days of gala festivities that also included sneak-peek tours, an Oscar night-like red carpet walk for A-list celebrities and Center donors, and a three-hour fete for the man of honor that featured the likes of Chris Tucker, Jim Carrey, Angelina Jolie and former President Bill Clinton.

At the end of the Saturday night program, on what must have been an exhausting day for the Parkinson's-stricken Ali, Clinton pulled the former three-time champ close, and said: "The world is a better place because of you."

Ali, never one to let such an opportunity pass, slung a reciprocal arm around the shoulders of Clinton and gave him some bunny ears.

Such classic Ali irreverence was in short supply over a weekend dedicated to opening the 96,750-square-foot, eponymous center. The center is meant to be more than a retrospective of the boxing career of arguably the best heavyweight fighter of all time. Officials for the center see it as a sort of United Nations outpost, the aim of which, they said, is to promote the peace and justice Ali fought for during his career and beyond.

"Muhammad may have made his mark as a boxer," wife Lonnie Ali told reporters on Friday, "but he has truly made a much larger footprint on the world outside of the boxing ring."

The space for that mission, however, is still on hold, thanks to nearly four months of construction and funding delays. So while the Ali Center has already formed relationships with the University of Louisville (for the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peacemaking and Conflict Resolution) and the U.N. (for a program on children in armed conflict) with an eye toward its educational and humanitarian aims, the Friday previews of the Center did not include walks through unfinished classrooms, the archival library or administrative offices. Officials hope to have the entire Center open in the spring.

Sneak peaks were limited to the 25,000 square feet of artfully conceived exhibits that include a five-screen Orientation Theater, galleries dedicated to the works of Ali photographer Howard Bingham and artist LeRoy Neiman, and a series of pavilions chronicling Ali's life and career.

Here visitors will find what is, for people all over the world, most tangible about Muhammad Ali: A red Schwinn Cruiser Deluxe, reminiscent of the bike someone stole from Cassius Clay that led him into the boxing ring at age 12; images of Clay, a decade later, in white silk shorts and red gloves, bellowing his triumph over the prostrate body of Sonny Liston; Ali in exile in the prime of his life, but as boisterous and playful as ever; Ali, at 32 and fiery and colorful as a phoenix, raising his arms in victory after shocking the world and Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire.

There is also the image of Ali in 1996, lighting the Olympic flame at the Atlanta Games as the torch quivered in his hand.

The most arresting station brings Ali back into the ring, literally. From a fifth-floor cylindrical perch, images from a 12½-minute film entitled "The Greatest" are projected through an oval cutout and down onto the canvas of a standard-sized boxing ring located on the fourth floor. From the upper floor's promenade, visitors can watch as a near-life-size Ali battles it out again with Liston, Frazier and Foreman in a documentary-style montage chronicling his career.

Ali himself was in short supply over the weekend, appearing only for a brief photo-op for the press on Friday and late in the day for the Sunday dedication.

Recently rumored to be in steep physical decline, Ali did tread the red carpet in the Grand Opening Celebration program on Saturday evening, moving along in an altogether different sort of Ali shuffle. He was accompanied by his wife and a retinue of handlers.

No doubt Parkinson's is taking its toll on Ali. It is the reason, family friends say, for his dramatic 50-pound weight loss. Ali seems whittled to the size of a frail light heavyweight. And he's still recovering, admits wife Lonnie, from a recent surgery to ease pressure on his spine from three fused vertebrae in his neck.

But once again in the limelight, Ali was his old game self, waving to fans and pausing to mount a left jab for TV cameras and photographers.

Avoiding the spotlight completely was special guest Jolie, who was accompanied to the Grand Opening Gala event in Louisville's Kentucky Center by new beau Brad Pitt in what was the couple's first public outing on U.S. soil.

Of the millions of dollars raised for the Center by celebrities -- actors Robin Williams and Billy Crystal chipped in $2 million in proceeds from a charity roast -- Jolie gave to the Center by underwriting two of its most ambitious exhibits. One is called "Hope & Dream," a large-scale work by Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang that incorporates over 5,000 drawings from children all over the world.

"She had committed early on because she believes in the mission of the Ali Center," Lonnie Ali said of the actress Saturday.

Jolie, swathed in an eye-catching scarlet gown, and Pitt steered clear of the red-carpet media gauntlet, and were ushered into the performing arts pavilion through a back door. And though they sat in a balcony, separate even from other guests, the pair could be seen waving tiny flashlight "torches" during the program's finale, a tribute to the man of the evening and the Center that bears his name. Once the program ended, Pitt headed out while Jolie descended to the lobby and signed autographs for waiting fans.

Most of the Saturday night celebs, however, mingled with the masses.

"American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard waved to screaming fans and talked with members of the media for nearly a half-hour before making his way inside the performing arts center. Also walking the walk were former heavyweight champs Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield, comics Jim Carrey and Chris Tucker, newly retired New York Knicks guard Allan Houston, and recording artists James Taylor and Herbie Hancock. Singer and actor Kris Kristofferson, a close friend of the Alis who flew in from Hawaii to attend, also spoke and performed during the festivities.

Also sharing remarks and personal stories for the Gala's audience were Montell Williams; Malcolm X's daughter, Attallah Shabazz; Sir David Frost, a ringside commentator for "The Rumble in the Jungle"; NBC's "Today" host Matt Lauer; NPR's Tavis Smiley as well as sports commentators Bob Costas and Bryant Gumbel.

Clinton brought the three-hour show to a close.

"I, too, grew up loving Ali," he said, though Clinton is only four years younger than his idol.

He briefly traced the transformation of Ali from his physical peak to the fighter's decline. Clinton said that though too many of Ali's gifts -- his way with words and his physical force -- had been taken from him, at the same time, "his heart grew."

Clinton cited Ali's roles in the civil rights and antiwar movements, and his later work with children around the globe.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Clinton. What Ali has shown us, he added, was that "the power of example matters a lot more than the example of power."

Ali, silent in public now because of his slow and slurred speech, responded simply by placing his gnarled hand over his heart.

The grand-opening program ended with Clinton passing to Ali another torch -- a stubby, plastic flashlight replica of the one Ali held in Atlanta in 1996.

At first, Clinton, then Lonnie Ali, tried to hold the awkward knock-off in Muhammad's hand for him, doubting the firmness of his grip. But finally Ali tore the trophy-sized torch from every helping hand and waved it in his own, still as sure of his own strength and grasp as he was on his hold over the imaginations of everyone in attendance.

The host of Sportscolumn.com's "Weekly NFL Picks" podcast, Teri Berg is a contributing writer for ESPN.com, Maxboxing.com and a variety of online publications. She can be reached through her blog, Berg At Bat, or you can e-mail her at bergteri@yahoo.com.