LOUISVILLE, Ky. — “Ali! Ali!”
They chanted Muhammad Ali’s name in the streets Friday as the former heavyweight champion, global icon and native son embarked on a final ride — past the modest pink house where he grew up.
An estimated 100,000 mourners lined the route — down Muhammad Ali Boulevard — pumping their fists and lovingly tossing roses and daisies onto the hearse bearing Ali’s casket.
Hours later, the boxing legend and outspoken activist was saluted at a grand memorial service in downtown Louisville as a faithful and proud man, who kept his sense of humor and didn’t fear death even while fighting the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.
The service was held at a sports arena dotted with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, comedian and Long Island native Billy Crystal, former NFL great Jim Brown, actor Will Smith and director Spike Lee.
He was remembered as a three-time champ, but also for breaking racial barriers and forcing a nation to examine its flaws.
Kevin Cosby, a Louisville pastor, said in his eulogy that Ali “dared to love America’s most unloved race.”
“Before James Brown said ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ Muhammad Ali said ‘I’m black and I’m pretty,’” Cosby said. “Black and pretty was an oxymoron.”
Crystal recalled being awe-struck by the brash boxer from the moment they met in 1974.
“He did things nobody could do. He predicted the round that he would knock somebody out and then he would do it,” Crystal quipped at the KFC Yum! Center, packed with about 15,000 people. “He was funny, he was beautiful, he was the most perfect athlete you ever knew — and those were his own words.”
But Crystal said Ali “struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night …. His power toppled the mightiest of foes and his intense might shined on America.”
In many ways, Ali symbolized America — a work in progress, said Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, who couldn’t make the memorial because he was attending his daughter Malia’s high school graduation.
“Ali was ... loud and proud, an unabashedly black voice in a Jim Crow world,” Jarrett said, reading a message from Obama.
Ali’s wife Lonnie said he remained a devout Muslim.
“He was sure-footed in his self-awareness, secure in his faith, and he did not fear death,” she said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who met Ali 28 years ago, recalled how the disease-stricken champ once told him: “God gave me this condition to remind me always that I am human and that only He is the greatest.”
In the final eulogy, Clinton recalled watching Ali laboring as he climbed a platform in 1996 to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta.
“He was going to make those last steps, no matter what it took. The flame would be lit, no matter what, the fight would be won,” Clinton said. “He refused to be imprisoned by a disease.”
Ali died last Friday at the age of 74. He was buried at Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery in a private ceremony before the memorial.
Many of the people who lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the 19-mile procession fondly remembered Ali as the boy from Grand Avenue, or the legendary boxer proud to be from Louisville — despite being refused service at a luncheonette counter after wining the 1960 Olympic gold medal.
As the motorcade approached Grand Avenue, crowds lined both sides of the streets, leaning forward to view the hearse.
“The champ is here!” someone yelled.
Then the familiar chant erupted: “Ali! Ali!”
Children tossed rose petals at the hearse. A man ran alongside, extending the moment.
“I could not miss this. I could not let my children miss this,” said Louisville native Robin Garner, 32, who stood on 32nd Street with more than a dozen family members. “This is part of history, just to see somebody that came from these streets.”
Kenneth Coley, 47, of Louisville, arrived at the A.D. Porter & Son funeral home more than two hours before the procession started, “to see the champ leave.”
Coley said Ali’s philanthropy and pride in his race and culture inspired him.
“I like how he was so pro-black. He was all about his culture. He never deviated from that,” Coley said.
Outside the funeral home, parents brought their children and people traded stories about Ali.
Carti Arvin’s neighbor encouraged her to come. Arvin recalled meeting the boxer as a child in the 1960s at a Louisville housing development community center.
“We all just started running toward him. Then he stated giving out money for chips and pop,” Arvin said. “We were just so excited to have that happen.”
James Spaldin, 42, of Bardstown, Kentucky, made a point of bringing his 14-year-old daughter Savannah.
“He was a great man. He was a great humanitarian,” Spalding said. “Mainly he stood up for himself, and I want to teach her that.”