Muhammad Ali: Our family's superhero friend

Story highlights

  • Former Kentucky governor recalls his friend Muhammad Ali's global influence and brave struggle against his disease
  • CNN correspondent Pamela Brown remembers meeting Ali as a child, and their friendship ever since

John Y. Brown is a former Kentucky governor and co-founder of Ali Center. Pamela Brown serves as a CNN Justice correspondent covering law enforcement, as well as issues related to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Supreme Court

(CNN)I got to know Muhammad Ali some 41 years ago when my wife, who owned the Kentucky Colonels American Basketball Association basketball team, invited Ali to a playoff game with Dr. J and the New York Nets. This was shortly after his George Foreman victory and the city of Louisville embraced him as its hometown hero.

John Y. Brown
It was his first public visit to Louisville since he won the gold in the 1960 Olympics. For years thereafter I enjoyed his friendship.
In fact, he campaigned for me for governor and attended my inauguration and many other events as our guest at the Kentucky Derby. You could call him one of the great entrepreneurs of my generation in that he turned the boxing world into the greatest show on Earth. Along with his national fame, he was able to influence all cultures and people with his personal convictions. His spirit and confidence made him a hero around the world.
    Friend: Muhammad Ali was 'a very humble man'
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      Friend: Muhammad Ali was 'a very humble man'


    Friend: Muhammad Ali was 'a very humble man' 03:42
    Last Friday after the announcement of his passing, it was as if the world stopped to show Ali respect, admiration and love. We all have remembered his career sacrifice in standing up for what he believed. Whether he was speaking about racial injustice or the need to love one another or his journey to lift up all people, he drew a rapt audience from around the globe. He influenced the world with his hyperbold manner, proclaiming that "black is beautiful" and "look at me, I'm beautiful."
    He taught others to be proud of their ancestry and stand up for what they believe in. I could go on and on about what we collectively remember about "The Greatest" but my own personal memory and respect for Ali goes further.
    He left a lasting impression on me when I attended his 1980 fight with Larry Holmes. His loss in that fight caused great sorrow for his following. My friend John J. Hooker, who ran for governor of Tennessee, was a close friend of Ali and went to his hotel the next day to see him. When he saw Ali sitting on his bedside, slumped over, the 6-foot-6 John J. knelt down and looked up at Ali with a tear streaming down. Ali looked down, taking his thumb to wipe away the tear, and said "John J., don't cry. Remember I'm still Muhammad Ali."
    CNN correspondent: Muhammad Ali 'knew great card tricks'
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      CNN correspondent: Muhammad Ali 'knew great card tricks'


    CNN correspondent: Muhammad Ali 'knew great card tricks' 02:53
    Ali again demonstrated his greatness in the way he accepted his Parkinson's disease and increasing frailty, and didn't allow them to interfere with his championing of causes and charities. In my involvement with the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum commemorating his career and his life outside boxing, I witnessed his struggle over 20 years, while traveling with the center's visionary, his wife, Lonnie Ali.
    The way he handled his pain and discomfort day after day and kept moving on without ever a whimper was something I had never witnessed before. Together he and Lonnie helped raise some $80 million to establish the eight-story building that will house his legacy for generations yet unborn.
    Lonnie was the hero of Ali's life — the steward of his well-being for 25 years, guiding him and allowing the public to continue to remember him and be influenced by his legacy. She was born and raised in Louisville, graduated from Vanderbilt University, then earned a master's degree from UCLA. She has comforted Ali through his trials and tirelessly allowed him to keep active and relevant in his life causes. Many in Kentucky think of her as a saint. Theirs was one of the great love affairs.
    I've always believed that the true test of a man is not what he accomplished, but rather how he did it. Ali was a man for all seasons, never wavering from his beliefs or commitments. "He was a man. Take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again." That is Muhammad Ali!
    Several years ago during a long day of meetings in Los Angeles with Ali, Lonnie and Larry Townsend, the Ali Center's CEO, I asked the champ: Don't you get tired of all this travel? He thought for a moment and leaned over and whispered: "I can rest later."
    Now may he rest in peace. Mission accomplished.

    A little girl's card-playing buddy

    I first met Muhammed Ali in Lexington, Kentucky, when I was a little girl. My parents told me we had a special visitor coming to the house and he would be staying with us for the night. At the time I didn't understand the magnitude of being in the presence of Muhammed Ali, but I instantly felt a special bond with him.
    At that time he couldn't talk much because of his Parkinson's disease, but he had a little twinkle in his eye when we met and showed me a trick that made it look like he was floating 2 inches off the ground.
    As a little girl I thought our special guest was an actual magician! I couldn't wait to show him a few card tricks I had up my sleeve, so we sat down at the kitchen table and he patiently watched as I showed off my very amateur tricks. To say he then one-upped me with his own card tricks is an understatement!
    Sitting around the kitchen table playing cards became our thing whenever we would see each other through the years. When we ventured out in public together I realized this magician had the ability to mesmerize everyone around him. Wherever we would go, the crowds would flock and he enjoyed nothing more than to please them with his floating tricks and his one-two punch boxing move.
    A young Pamela Brown plays cards with Muhammad Ali.
    When he was my family's guest at the Derby one year, the entire crowd in the grandstand chanted "Ali! Ali! Ali!" He held my hand all the way through the grandstand to the paddock and it was the most memorable moment of my life. I had never seen a human being have such a profound impact on everyone around him, no matter their race, ethnicity or upbringing.
    He transcended all that. As I grew older and his health deteriorated, he still had that twinkle in his eye when I would see him. The last time I saw Ali was two years ago at the Ali Center's dinner. His wife, Lonnie, told him, "Pamela's here," and I gave him a bear hug.
    Even though we couldn't show each other card tricks anymore, I still felt that special connection to him. Ali is known as an icon for so many roles he had in his life -- but for me as a little girl growing up in Kentucky he was a real-life superhero. -- Pamela Brown