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Muhammad Ali, the Once and Future Hero

Icons: With his wife, co-author and his 'Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding,' the former champion boxer preaches brotherhood and respect.

December 05, 1996|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a different time than when Muhammad Ali was first proclaimed a hero.

Then, an athlete with braggadocio and grace, who was fast and pretty, who changed his name, defied his government and yet reclaimed his place, was hailed by many for taking a stand. He was a man respected by generations.

Now, the concept of hero is broader, almost meaningless. Hero status is often bestowed for simply gaining fame and fortune. Generational respect is optional.

It was into this different time that a different Ali entered Tuesday when he visited Alain LeRoy Locke High School in Watts and Centennial High School in Compton on a heroic mission: to spread a message of brotherhood. Along with his wife, Lonnie; his co-author and biographer, Thomas Hauser; his best friend and renowned photographer, Howard Bingham; world super middleweight champion Roy Jones Jr.; and HBO boxing announcer Jim Lampley, he visited the schools and gave students copies of "Healing: A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding" (CollinsPublishersSanFrancisco).

It's a little book of quotes ranging from Voltaire to Colin Powell commenting on the wrongs of hatred and includes blank spaces for the readers' own thoughts. The event, sponsored by HBO Sports, also included an art contest in which students submitted pieces reflecting a quote chosen from the book.

In the preface, Ali, a black Muslim, and Hauser, a white Jew, talk of the friendship they managed to forge despite their differences:

"We want to make a statement about bigotry and prejudice. We believe that most people are tired of the hating. We believe that most people are saying, 'If there's a way to solve this problem, let's solve it.' "

And so Ali, once a loud crusader who quietly and consistently did good works and now--slowed by Parkinson's disease--a quieted crusader with Lonnie as his voice, came to L.A. to work on the problem of hatred.

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Heroic deeds rely on memory and storytelling. If a hero's exploits aren't passed along, they fade into a glimmer.

"I know he's a famous boxer," said Locke student Blanca Avina, 17, of L.A. "I've seen posters of him. He was a heavyweight."

"I know he's a boxer," said Centennial's Latrease Jones, also 17. "They showed some films of his at school, but I didn't see them."

The gap between Ali's last fight in 1981 and today's high schoolers begs the question: In our celebrity-driven society, can the message get across if the messenger is unfamiliar?

At both schools the squeals, once showered on Ali, were reserved for Roy Jones, now the pretty one. In the big gyms, the light and mischief still in Ali's eyes is lost, though at each stop he delighted the crowd with one-liners. But Lonnie Ali, who says she and her husband speak with one voice, kept the mission focused.

At Locke, she asked students if they really understood the message of healing, did they know what the word "healing" meant. She chose a few to step to the microphone to tell her and everyone.

At Centennial, where a student gave the welcoming address in English and then received scattered boos when she announced she would do it in Spanish, Lonnie Ali did not allow the obvious lesson to pass, taking the guilty section to task. "She has a right to be here. That's what the book is about." The gym got a little quieter. For a moment, they were listening.

And it is in those small moments that Ali's mission is accomplished. The students may not know exactly who he is or why he's heralded, but they know he cares enough to be there at their schools when others haven't.

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"He's out there talking about his disease, not hiding," said Centennial's Jamiey Anderson, 16. "He's being there for young people. He's a strong black hero."

Centennial's Latrease said she believed that people in her generation would learn from Ali even if they didn't know him. "They can look past the fame and see the person inside and the message." She said she learned from participating in the art contest, where she won second place for a work inspired by a quote from the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi: "You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist." Her work featured handprints of various colors and include a self-penned poem that includes the line, "If only we can open our eyes and realize that we cause the hate that lingers within us."

Co-author Hauser is aware of Ali's change in stature.

"In the beginning, Ali made his impact as a fighter. Then, he made an impact as a social / political / religious figure when he refused induction into the Army. Now he's making an impact as a person.

"It would be nice if everyone understood the history of Ali, just like it would be nice if they knew about Martin Luther King and Andrew Young and Rosa Parks. He belongs in that company. But people respond to the Ali they know today.

"He's a person of pure good will, and there's an aura about him that's so clear to anyone in his presence."

So, in this different time, in this same world, where heroism is more parts fame than deed, a less known Ali might be better. Of course, there are enough who remember to ensure that there will always be press coverage, that Ali will go about his mission in the public eye. But there will also be a large quarter who will wonder what all the fuss is about.

Some of them will ignore him. They'll ditch the assemblies or just see them as an opportunity to miss a class. Some will pay attention then and forget soon after. And some will listen, really listen, to a man they know others revere for reasons unclear and they'll pay attention because he came and they'll develop a new definition of hero that's not so new at all.

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