Part 2: Our 2001 interview with Muhammad Ali
Second of two parts
BERRIEN SPRINGS, Mich. -If there is such a thing as paradise in the Midwest, Muhammad Ali has owned it since the late 1970s.
Located about 20 miles north of South Bend, Ind., his 88-acre farm -- which incongruously once served as a hideout for Al Capone and his gang -- couldn't be more peaceful or pleasing to the eye.
The family's large, white country home and the handful of immaculate buildings that accompany it are in perfect harmony with the towering trees, waving grasses and blooming gardens.
The only part of the picture that doesn't seem to fit is the pair of black Dobermans, Champ and Sasha, that have the run of the land. Upon closer inspection, of course, these dogs turn out to be as playful as their 59-year-old master. They go for the throats of people they know, but only because that's where they prefer to distribute their sloppy kisses.
"It's like heaven here in the spring and summer," said Lonnie Ali, Muhammad's wife of 14 years. "In the morning, the birds wake you up. It's so peaceful. If I sold it, I'd be sorry and sad. Quickly."
And not just because of the property they own.
Muhammad, Lonnie and their 10-year-old adopted son, Asaad, feel equally at home when they venture beyond their security gates. The residents of this sleepy Main Street USA town treat the Ali family with an appealing mix of respect and protectiveness.
When visitors ask citizens for information about the Alis, the locals either claim not to know of their existence or point the strangers in the wrong direction.
When the Alis attend Asaad's baseball and soccer games -- he participates in practically every sport but boxing -- they're left alone to enjoy the action or treated just like other sideline kibitzers.
And, yet, the Alis have been making plans for the past year to leave this paradise behind.
Why? Because that's how strongly they feel about the Muhammad Ali Center that is soon to be built in their hometown of Louisville, Ky.
More than a place to display Ali's mementos gained through a lifetime of boxing, this $60 million monument to Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Century will be a place where children can experience Ali's spirit and, the family hopes, break off a piece of it for themselves.
"You're going to have to have that memorabilia component," said Lonnie, the primary organizational force behind the project, "because there are going to be people -- your boxing buffs -- coming there thinking this is some museum on Muhammad Ali.
"They are going to be so surprised once they get in there because that's really not what it's about. What it's really about is children -- and making them realize that their dreams can come true.
"The bigger the dream, the better. And giving them those skills and the confidence that they need to do exactly what he did. Anybody, no matter where they come from and what walk of life, has the potential to be great. If they believe it. And if they want it bad enough."
Sue Carls, the Ali Center's director of communications, says several interactive exhibits are planned so children can "feel what it was like to be Muhammad."
Right down to Ali's deeply religious core.
While the Center likely will make no overt references to Islam and Ali's 40 years as a Muslim -- he prays five times per day and spends many mornings and afternoons poring over the Quran as well as the Bible (he carefully writes out the contradictions he finds in the latter so he can share them with others) -some of the exhibits will have a spiritual bent.
"We want to give people more of an emotional feeling," Carls said. "In each of his exhibits, we want to make sure people think about his beliefs and how they relate to them."
And the best way for children to relate to Ali? By meeting him. When school buses pull up and the students pile out, the object of their affection frequently will be found just inside the front door.
"I'll be there taking pictures and signing autographs," Muhammad promised.
That's the reason the Alis are willing to make Berrien Springs their secondary residence -- so they can spend much of their time in Louisville and at the Ali Center.
Muhammad and Lonnie will have offices at the Center, though it's hard to imagine Muhammad retreating behind four walls whenever children are nearby.
"He loves meeting people," Carls said. "I've never seen anybody who loves it so much. He'll probably be here at least a third of the time."
There's just one catch.
As much as Muhammad loves performing optical illusions -"I don't do magic tricks," he cautions -- and making things appear as if out of thin air, he and Lonnie haven't been able to raise the estimated $80 million necessary ($60 million for the building; $20 million for an endowment) to construct the Ali Center.
Lonnie, the workaholic force behind the fundraising, wants to have all the money in hand before construction begins on the prime riverfront property donated to the cause.
"I think that's the only way to do it," she said.
At present, the Ali Center coffers show $27 million plus another $10 million the state of Kentucky promised but has yet to authorize.
"I think, in our naiveté, it was going to be a lot easier than this to raise money," Lonnie said. "There's a lot of wonderful competing projects out there that have been established for a long time.
"It's not as easy as you think. I think it might have been naive on the part of some people's thinking that, because it was Muhammad, the money was going to be raised like that.
"I don't think the Pope could raise it that fast. I don't know if anybody could raise it that fast."
Groundbreaking, which once was planned for 1998, now is scheduled for December 2001 with completion planned for 2003. If corporations and private citizens keep coming through, that is.
Ali Center officials hope the flow of funds will increase in the coming months as the hype machine gets cranked up for the expected Thanksgiving release of "Ali," the man's quintessential biography.
Muhammad has had an advisory role throughout the film, which features a bulked-up Will Smith in the title role. Smith, who added 35 pounds of muscle prior to the start of shooting, visited the Alis' farm recently.
"Muhammad and Lonnie were amazed by how much he looked like Muhammad," said Kim Vidt, Muhammad's personal assistant. "So was I."
Muhammad, perhaps not surprisingly, was amazed by his own amazingness when he visited the "Ali" sets in Chicago and Miami and was reminded of the unparalleled trip he has taken.
"I think I'm the first person ever to have a movie made about him while he was still living," Muhammad boasts.
When Lonnie hears this, she gently chides her husband. Staying merely within the boxing genre, she reminds him that "Raging Bull" and "Hurricane," were made while their subjects were still alive.
Muhammad doesn't skip a beat.
"Well," he says with his characteristic whisper and a hint of a smile, "then I'm the first great person."