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A Complex Life

A Complex Life ...From the pages of South Jersey Magazine...

Muhammad Ali.

Hate.

By now, you have read a dozen tributes saluting the amazing, complicated life of Ali, but I doubt if you read any article that had the word “hate” as the third word. However, as much as I was a huge fan of the man right from the very beginning, I had to confront many people in my own neighborhood, and my own father about Ali and what he represented. And often it got ugly.

Before I even begin, let me point out that many, many residents of Southwest Philly, the area I grew up in, were kind and decent people who did not harbor ill will toward anyone. I would not trade my early childhood years with anyone else’s. It was a fun, vibrant area to spend your youth in.

For me, being 10 years old meant playing street ball and getting water ice on my Phillies T-shirt. That was the extent of any drama in my life until The Beatles and the Vietnam War came along. Then I started noticing a strange, dark side to the human condition and Cassius Clay was at the center of it all.

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Let’s start with race. God, I even hate discussing that word, because who the heck am I other than just a big doofus in a bowling shirt trying to raise my kids and enjoy a meatball sandwich. If there is someone that you hate for no good reason whatsoever, well, there’s nothing I’m going to be able to write here that is going to change your feelings. So I am not going to even try.

But here I was, a snot-nosed kid, when all of a sudden I started hearing a lot of ugly words. “Who does this uppity #@#$% think he is?! All brash and cocky.” Men like my dad wanted their black champion to be like Joe Louis. Quiet and dignified. Who did this mouthy Clay think he was?

At this point in my life it was all rah-rah-rah for the home team. Everything positive. Oh, we booed when someone struck out, but that was different. This felt like real hate and I had never experienced that before.

To me and a lot of my buddies, Clay was funny, and a devastating boxer on top of it. And he was beating Sonny Liston, who was not exactly a choirboy. Liston was truly a bad man in real life. So what was everyone getting all upset about? I didn’t get it. Still don’t.

At about the same time The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. It was an exhilarating historical moment, right? Four fun dudes performing great songs; nothing but positive vibes to take out of this, right?

Wrong again. To my dad, they were nothing but a “bunch of long-haired #$%^’s.” I cannot begin to explain to you how much my old man hated any man with long hair. His veins would literally pop out of his neck. Looking back on those old photos of the completely harmless Beatles on Ed Sullivan, it’s hard to explain to a high school student today how in hell they could have enraged that many men.

But they did. And when that photo of Clay and The Beatles came out? It was a wonder my old man didn’t jump off the Walt Whitman Bridge.

So now we have two different types of hate swirling around Clay. The old reliable race card and a brand new type of hatred for “long haired hippies.” It didn’t matter that The Beatles were primarily singing about love. And at that time, Clay was just a fantastic athlete who recited poems and boasted he was “The Greatest” to sell tickets. He barely knew who The Beatles were when he met them.

Then Clay changes his name and converts to Islam. He’s now Muhammad Ali. My neighborhood was 99 percent Catholic. And the only time anyone ever changed their name in my parish was when a woman got married. No one changed their name. If you were born Tommy Boyle, you died Tommy Boyle. End of story. And when Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, half of my street had a collective heart attack.

We now have a president whose name is Barrack Obama. And he was voted in twice. Once more, if you tried to explain to a 15-year-old how Clay simply changing his name to Ali caused such conniptions, they would laugh at you.

So now we’ve added religion to this mess along with race and the generation gap. Wait, there’s one more: Vietnam. Ali refused to go. Now you could add “draft dodger” to his list of so-called “crimes.” This one I truly couldn’t grasp because at least half of my lower middle-class, blue-collar older friends were doing everything in their power not to go also.What was Ali doing that was so different? Why is Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” still a powerful song? Because its lyrics are dead on.

My brother fought inVietnam. He didn’t want to. I wish he hadn’t. Most of the dads in my neighborhood fought inWorldWar II (including mine) and saw and survived horrible atrocities. You then would have thought that these same dads would have been at the forefront of protesting this terrible, useless war, but for many of these dads, it was the complete opposite. Ali, and anyone else who didn’t sign up to fight was a “coward” and much more.

Again, go figure. Now I want to make it very clear that I am immensely proud of my dad and brother’s service to this country. But mostly, and particularly of the many people I knew who fought in Vietnam, I am happy that they made it home.

All I’m doing is reminding any younger readers who only knew Ali from that historic and heart-wrenching moment when he lit the Olympic torch exactly what it was he went through, what he battled and had to overcome because I was there. I heard the hate and it affected me because I was so young and hadn’t experienced anything like that before. Geez, who am I to sound so heavy, but in the end, love won. When he died, we loved him and that in itself is a crazy journey.

Speaking of journeys, Ali briefly lived in the Voken Tract section of Cherry Hill back in early 1971. Go ahead, look it up. You might also find this story when you do: When Ali rope-a-doped and defeated George Foreman in Zaire in one of the most improbable victories ever, no one could find him after the fight and he was expected at major parties with important dignitaries.

Where was he? In a small village perform- ing magic tricks for kids. My man! Here’s to one of the most talented and funny and nervy and complex human beings ever. I’m glad I was on Earth the same time you were.

Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 14 (July, 2016).
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Author: Big Daddy Graham

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