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Column: For a kid from Louisville, there was no one like Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali
Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali throws playful punch toward a photographer while sitting on a bus in front of Locke High School in December 1996.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times)

The static-streaked words tumbling out of the old transistor radio turned the tiny bedroom into a raucous arena.

It was a Monday night in March of 1971, my hometown hero was fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world, and I had a ringside seat.

While Muhammad Ali slugged it out with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden, I was a 12-year-old kid battling sheets and pillows from the edge of my bed in a modest neighborhood in the east end of Louisville, Ky.

A punch on the radio was followed by a punch of the mattress. A scream from the announcer was followed by a shout into the sleeve of my raggedy pajama shirt.

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It was the first time a sports event kept me up late. It was the first time a sports event made me believe it’s not always just about sports.

When Ali lost by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat in his first big fight since being banned from boxing for four years for his religious convictions, it was the first time sports made me cry.

Another time was Friday night, upon hearing the news that the athlete who had the greatest impact on my life, and many lives, had died.

Before Ali belonged to the world, he belonged to Louisville, where I was born and raised and spent 18 years cheering for him from that same little room.

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With the exception of the Kentucky Colonels in the funky American Basketball Assn., Louisville didn’t have a major professional sports franchise, so for many of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, Ali was our team.

He was my Lakers and Dodgers combined. He was my Koufax and Kobe mixed together. He was an Ohio River kid with a big-city swagger, and how the young folks loved him for it. He had a courage I tried to emulate while shakily staring down a fastball in the Lyndon youth league. He had a strength I tried to find while surviving an advanced English class at Ballard High. He had a showmanship that I foolishly attempted — and failed — to imitate when I danced around a hotel ballroom upon winning a high school journalism award.

Many of the older folks in town still referred to him as Cassius Clay even long after he changed his name. Some of that was stubbornness, and some of that was lingering racism that kept the Louisville establishment from completely embracing him until after his retirement in 1981. But to the kids, he was always simply Ali, a local who fought his way out of Louisville’s middle-class West End to conquer a world that most of us could only imagine.

When we skipped rope in physical education class, we were Ali. When we danced around each other on the school playground with our tiny fists jabbing into the air, we were Ali. Those fists would never actually hit anything, we never actually fought like Ali, most of us were far too frightened to engage in his brutal sport. But we could still float like him, and pretend to sting like him, and be immensely proud of how he became more beloved than Colonel Sanders and a bigger spectacle than the Derby.

We triumphed with him, and we mourned with him, even revisiting history that was unkind to him. According to his autobiography, when Ali returned to Louisville after winning a boxing gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, he became so angry at being barred from a ‘’whites-only’’ restaurant that he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. Driving across that bridge into Indiana during my high school years, my friends and I would always slow down at the midway point, peer down into the swirling muddy waters, and proclaim that this was the spot where the legend began.

Alas, the story was eventually disputed by those close to Ali, who finally acknowledged he simply lost the medal. It turned out to be just another Ali parable. But like many of us Louisvillians, I never stopped believing.

Because of his great charisma — he basically invented smack talk — Ali was given a nickname that most considered derogatory. But in my neighborhood, it was a moniker that was celebrated.

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“The Louisville Lip,’’ they called him, and it wouldn’t have worked except he backed up everything he said, stood by everything he believed, fought through everything in his path, from racism to religious discrimination to skepticism that a fighter could use the power of conviction to connect the world. He was a three-time world champion, but his refusal to pull punches had far greater impact outside the ring. He wasn’t a perfect man, he was as much sinner as saint, but he was a Louisville guy, and he inspired us all.

During my 36-year journalism career, I have written a column, or two, or 2,000, about athletes overcoming a variety of obstacles and injustices. As a Louisville eighth-grader, I began writing these kinds of stories for the local neighborhood weekly because I was trying to find athletes whose stories reminded me of Muhammad Ali.

I never actually covered an Ali fight. He retired shortly after the beginning of my professional journalism career. Because I rarely wrote about boxing, I met him only once, when he made a surprise visit to the Los Angeles Times sports department.

He was struggling with Parkinson’s disease at the time, so he walked slowly and talked softly, but I when I told him I was from Louisville, I could swear his clouded eyes lit up. He gently placed his hand next to my ear and made a cricket sound by rubbing his thumb and index finger together. I found it strange at the time, but I later learned that, slowly robbed of his ability to speak, it was his trademark way of connecting.

In a wondrous coincidence of fate, I felt that connection again in 2001 when I was cast as a sportswriter in the movie “Ali,’’ directed by Michael Mann and starring Will Smith. I was part of a group of reporters shouting questions to then-Clay at a news conference.

Smith looked, talked and acted like Ali so much —  he should have won an Oscar — that I sold myself into believing I was talking to the real fighter. Maybe that’s why I shouted my questions so loudly and forcefully, Mann required several takes to get it right.

“You stole the scene,’’ Smith said afterward with a grin.

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“I was just talking to my hero,’’ I sheepishly admitted.

 “Mine too,’’ said Smith, understanding the Louisville kid exactly.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke


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