LOUISVILLE, Ky — Muhammad Ali crafted the plan for his final tribute years ago, long before he died. On Friday, his family will honor him just like he planned, with a global celebration in his hometown.
A procession will carry his body down an avenue in Louisville that bears his name, through his boyhood neighborhood and down Broadway, the scene of the parade that honored the brash young man — then known as Cassius Clay — for his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.
A day after Ali died at age 74 from complications of Parkinson’s disease, a family spokesman outlined plans for Ali’s funeral as people from Manila to Louisville to his adopted home of Arizona mourned the boxing great’s passing.
The family “certainly believes that Muhammad was a citizen of the world … and they know that the world grieves with him,” spokesman Bob Gunnell said at a news conference in Scottsdale, not far from Ali’s home in his final years.
Family members will accompany Ali’s remains to Louisville within the next two days. A private funeral will be held Thursday.
After the Friday procession, a memorial service open to the public will be held at the KFC YUM! Center. Eulogists will include former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal — who has done a masterful impression of Ali — and sports television host Bryant Gumbel.
The ceremony will be led by an imam in the Muslim tradition but include representatives of other faiths. Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch will represent Mormons.
“Muhammad Ali was clearly the people’s champion,” Gunnell said, “and the celebration will reflect his devotion to people of all races, religions and backgrounds.”
The spokesman said Ali died in Arizona at 9:10 p.m. Friday local time of “septic shock due to unspecified natural causes,” three decades after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
It is not clear what specifically caused the septic shock. However, difficulty swallowing is among complications of Parkinson’s disease and it can worsen at the end of life. It makes eating and drinking difficult and patients are at risk for aspirating food or liquids into their lungs, leading to pneumonia and a chest infection that in weakened patients can lead to sepsis — a bloodstream infection that can in turn cause organ failure and death.
Ali was mourned around the globe Saturday, and in his hometown, not even pouring rain could stop the tributes for “The Greatest.”
In the three-time heavyweight champion’s old neighborhood, brother Rahaman Ali stood in a small house on Grand Avenue and dabbed his eyes as he shook hand after hand. The visitors had come from as far away as Georgia and as near as down the street.
“God bless you all,” the 72-year-old Rahaman said to each.
Ali’s death held special meaning in Louisville, where he was the city’s favorite son.
“He was one of the most honorable, kindest men to live on this planet,” his brother said while greeting mourners at their childhood home, recently renovated and turned into a museum.
Cars lined both sides of the street. Visitors piled flowers and boxing gloves around the marker designating it a historical site. They were young and old, black and white, friends and fans.
Another memorial grew outside the Muhammad Ali Center downtown, a museum built in tribute to Ali’s core values: respect, confidence, conviction, dedication, charity, spirituality.
By mid-afternoon, nearly 3,000 people had come through the doors, said Donald Lassere, the center’s president and CEO. The center would typically draw about 500 visitors on a rainy Saturday, he said.
“Muhammad Ali belongs to the world,” Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said at a memorial service outside Metro Hall. “But he only has one hometown.”
Rahaman recalled what Ali was like as a boy named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., long before he became the most famous man in the world, celebrated as much for his grace and his words as his lightning-fast feet and knockout punch.
In their little pink house in Louisville’s west end, the brothers liked to wrestle and play cards and shoot hoops.
“He was a really sweet, kind, loving, giving, affectionate, wonderful person,” Rahaman said, wearing a cap that read “Ali,” the last letter formed by the silhouette of a boxer ready to pounce.
When he was 12, Ali had a bicycle that was stolen and he told a police officer he wanted to “whoop” whoever took it, Fischer said. The officer told him he’d have to learn how to box first.
Daniel Wilson Sr. was one year behind Ali at Central High School and remembered he was so committed to his conditioning that he didn’t get on the school bus like everybody else. Instead, he ran along beside it, three miles all the way to school each morning.
“The kids on the bus would be laughing and Ali would be laughing too,” he recalled at the Grand Avenue home.
Ruby Hyde arrived at the memorial holding an old black-and-white framed photo of a young Ali. As a teenager, she’d been a water girl at his amateur bouts and seen even then that there was something special, something cerebral, about the way he fought. Years later, he came back to the old neighborhood as a heavyweight champ, driving a Cadillac with the top down.
“All the kids jumped in and he rode them around the block,” she remembered.
He never forgot where he came from, she said. Liston’s voice trembled as she recounted running into him at a baseball game a few years ago.
“I got to tell him how much I cared about him. He put that big ol’ paw out and just shook my hand,” she said. “He just had time for everybody.”
The mayor ordered the city’s flags at half-staff.
Outside Metro Hall, Fischer pointed west, toward Ali’s childhood home, about three miles away in one of the city’s poorest zip codes.
“There can only be one Muhammad Ali, but his journey from Grand Avenue to global icon serves as a reminder that there are young people with the potential for greatness in the houses and neighborhoods all over our city, our nation, our world,” he said.
Fischer told mourners to teach all children Ali’s legacy: that a kid from Kentucky can grow up to be “The Greatest.”
“That’s how we become champions,” he said. “Muhammad Ali has shown us the way.”