Muhammad Ali: Louisville kicks off celebration of legend's life

Story highlights

  • Louisville, Kentucky, remembers most famous son with "I Am Ali" festival
  • Friday memorial service will cap commemoration of Muhammad Ali

(CNN)The lines that snaked for blocks Wednesday in downtown Louisville were reminiscent of the scramble long ago for tickets to this boxing legend's title bouts.

Within an hour, some 15,000 tickets had been handed out for Friday's memorial service for Muhammad Ali -- a final hometown main event for the three-time heavyweight champion, who died last week at age 74 after a lengthy battle with Parkinson's disease.
    "It's a real testament to the power of Muhammad Ali, his message and all he stood for that so many thousands showed up to be able to recognize him," Brian Eller told CNN affiliate WAVE-TV, leaving empty-handed after waiting in line for hours.
    Jeanne Stone told the TV station she traveled from Rochester, New York, for a chance to attend the memorial service in which former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal and broadcaster Bryant Gumbel are among those scheduled to give eulogies. She said she briefly met Ali, by chance, on a flight a few years ago.
    "He came down the aisle of the plane and shone in my mind," she said. "He was like the gift of kindness. ... You saw this shining soul. It made an imprint on my life."

    'Shake up the world'

    Ali, who proclaimed himself "The Greatest" and was one of the most famous and beloved athletes on the planet, began crafting details for his funeral years ago, insisting on an open and inclusive service, according to family spokesman Bob Gunnell.
    On Wednesday, a municipal festival celebrated "Ali's life journey and fierce determination," according to the city of Louisville. In addition to arts, entertainment and education offerings, "there will also be a wall where children can write what they want to be the greatest in."
    "Who knew when he was born here in General Hospital ... how he was going to go out and shake up the world," Mayor Greg Fischer said.
    "When we say, 'I Am Ali,' what that means is, you're saying, 'I can be the greatest,'" Fischer said before gathering dozens of children around him and freeing butterflies into the air.

    Islamic funeral prayer program

    Muhammad Ali prays at a mosque in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1991.
    A brief program of prayer, called a jenazah, will be held Thursday at the north wing of the Kentucky Exposition Center, with an overflow crowd allowed in Freedom Hall, the scene of Ali's last fight in Louisville in 1961. Imam Zaid Shakir, a Muslim scholar and co-founder of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California, will lead the service.
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    "To be properly prepared for burial, prayed over and then buried is a right owed to every single Muslim," Shakir said in a statement provided by organizers. "If no one fulfills those rights, then the entire community has fallen into sin. In the case of someone of Muhammad Ali's stature, to leave any of those rights unfulfilled would be a crime."
    Ali had said it was important that the memorials be conducted in the Muslim tradition, Gunnell said.

    Funeral procession and private burial

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    The memorial service -- the main public celebration of Ali's life -- will be held Friday afternoon at the 22,000-seat KFC Yum! Center in Louisville. The event will feature readings from the Quran, remarks from leaders from other faiths, eulogies from Crystal, Gumbel and Clinton and a poetry reading by Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's eldest daughter.
    Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, also will read a statement from the President. Obama cannot attend, because the service conflicts with his daughter Malia's high school graduation, Gunnell said.
    Ali's widow, Lonnie, has spoken with Obama on the phone, and she "has appreciated his kind words and condolences," Gunnell said.
    Actor Will Smith, who played the title role in the 2001 film "Ali," and former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis will be among eight pallbearers, according to organizers.
    Ali's funeral procession will travel along the street named for him, Muhammad Ali Boulevard, and past his boyhood home before heading to Cave Hill Cemetery, where he will be buried. City officials are encouraging residents to line the streets to greet the procession as it passes.

    'Family to all of us'

    The city is largely giving itself over to the memorial service -- offering free bus rides to ticketholders, urging downtown businesses to use common sense when deciding whether to open and imploring residents to offer a heaping slice of Southern hospitality to the throngs of out-of-towners.
    The police department is calling on some off-duty personnel to help, and the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau has lined up about 1,000 volunteers, its director said.
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    Ron Fields told WAVE that he flew from Los Angeles to pay his respects to Ali.
    "He was like family to all of us," he said of Ali. "The emotions really brought me here."