By Bruce Schreiner and Claire Galofaro
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The most famous man in the world sat down in a busy airport terminal with a little girl he’d never met, and the pair played pat-a-cake for 10 minutes.
That was 19 years ago. Muhammad Ali was waiting for a flight in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he noticed the 3-year-old girl and offered a hug. The child’s father, Louisville Metro Police Maj. Kelly Jones, still marvels at the encounter: Ali’s massive hand clapping his daughter’s tiny one.
Such stories spread this week across the city that raised the Louisville Lip, as dozens visited memorials or waited in line for tickets to services to say a final farewell to Ali, who died Friday at 74.
They recounted brushes with him at baseball games and at the barber shop; how he held them as a baby or wrapped his giant arms around their children. Even the tiniest moment seems tremendously special to the person who experienced it. They touched The Greatest, they say. And in some way, it made them greater, too.
For 40 years, two black and white photos have hung on Joan Carter’s living room wall. In one, her 9-year-old daughter, her hair tied in pigtails and a spoon in her hand, looks over her shoulder as she reaches out to Ali, crouched on his knees.
The second photo captures the moment that came next: The handsome boxer swept the child up in his arms and kissed her cheek.
In October 1975, Ali stopped by the housing project where they lived in Louisville’s west end. A crowd gathered to greet him, and the thrill of seeing him in the flesh is captured on the faces in the background of Carter’s framed photos.
The girl in the picture, Cheryl Carter Daniels, said she’s told the story again and again. “I always say, ‘and we’ve got the pictures to prove it.’”
Many people lined up Tuesday morning to get one of the 14,000 tickets to the Jenazah, a traditional Muslim funeral to be held Thursday at Freedom Hall. Someone had scribbled “Ali is love” in chalk with a heart around it on the pavement outside the box office. Tauhdedah El-Saadiq read the Quran as she waited for the office to open, while others napped. Tickets were handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.
People will begin lining up at 6 a.m. Wednesday for tickets to Friday’s memorial at the KFC Yum! Center, where former President Bill Clinton will deliver the eulogy. The box office will open at 10 a.m. and close when all 15,000 tickets are claimed.
Sean Waddell Jr., Ali’s distant cousin, last saw Ali in September.
Ali was in town for a ceremony at the Muhammad Ali Center. The 15-year-old wasn’t sure if he’d ever see him again and wanted to leave nothing unsaid. So he went up to Ali, threw his arms around him and declared, “If there’s anybody I want to be like, it’s you.”
Ali’s wife, Lonnie, noticed the boy’s handsome face.
“Doesn’t he look just like you when you were young?” she asked her husband. “He’s so pretty.”
Ali, who battled Parkinson’s disease for decades, struggled to speak. But Waddell said he smiled.
“It was the coolest moment of my life.”
Jole Burghy didn’t realize her family’s place in history until she was in the second grade and her teacher gave them a reading assignment. The story was about Muhammad Ali, and it included a picture of her grandfather, a Louisville police officer who first taught a young Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, how to box.
Ali’s bicycle had been stolen and he wanted to find and whip the culprit. He was introduced to Officer Joe Martin, who doubled as a boxing coach at a local gym.
“From that moment on, I realized what an important part of history he played,” Burghy said of her grandfather.
She has a picture of herself as an infant, being cradled in Ali’s giant arms.
Jones, the police major, also snapped a photo of his daughter on Ali’s lap after they played pat-a-cake in the airport.
“I’ve always told her, ‘Do not ever lose that picture,’” he said.
There’s one thing that stands out — the size of Ali’s forearms.
“I was sitting there thinking,” he said, “now I understand why when he hits you like that it hurts so much.”