Updated: Friday, June 2, 2017, 3:01 AM
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - So it's the Thursday afternoon before the Kentucky Derby and I am about to begin the same journey that Muhammad Ali's body took 11 months before, only a consistent drizzle has replaced the dazzling sunshine of that June Friday and only emptiness will be where thousands lined the streets of Louisville's West End that spectacular day.
When I watched that unforgettable funeral procession from home, I knew I would be driving the 23-mile route when I got to Kentucky in the spring, trying to imagine the scene, what it must have felt like, what it must have meant to so many who so desperately wanted to show their love for the native son, the Greatest Of All Time.
I drive into the parking lot of the A.P. Porter and Sons Funeral Home at 4501 Bardstown Road and head north 3.5 miles to the westbound Watterson Expressway, past strip malls, car dealers, mattress stores, chain restaurants, a car wash, gas stations, liquor stores, fast-food palaces, rental car joints, 21st century America's ode to itself, a world even young Cassius Clay could not have imagined, nor wanted to. The commercial chaos gives way to a placid stretch where so many stood on the grassy median as Ali's hearse passed by.
After a brief ride on the Watterson, named for Henry Watterson, editor of the Journal, now the Courier-Journal, I head north on I-65 toward downtown, passing the University of Louisville to the west, its rickety old football stadium still standing sentry, Freedom Hall where so much great basketball was once played, the magnificence of Churchill Downs looming beyond Papa John's Cardinal Stadium, where Louisville plays its football now.
With the Ohio River and the bridges to Indiana in the foreground and downtown Louisville just to the west, I swing the car onto I-64 West, past the KFC Yum! Center where Villanova beat Kansas to get to the 2016 Final Four and the Muhammad Ali Center, a wonderful museum filled with enough Ali history to sate the appetite of even the most zealous among us.
Off at 9th Street and right on Muhammad Ali Boulevard, once Walnut Street, until renamed for the champ 40 years ago, and right into the West End, so different so fast from the downtown with its high-rise hotels, nice restaurants and high-end businesses, a completely different vibe even though the distance is just a few blocks.
The crowds swelled in June when the procession got off the interstates and into the neighborhoods. I pass Central High where a young Cassius Clay graduated and then come upon a sign that reads: "Need down payment, call Lisa J.''
There are no mansions on this side of town. Nobody here owns suites at Churchill Downs. Some homes are well-kept, others boarded up. Ali insisted his last ride be on these streets, the streets of his youth, the streets of his people. I stop, close my eyes and see the crowds on these streets, running alongside the car, touching it, tossing flowers, waving as the procession goes by.
Go under the Watterson, which surrounds the city and then left for a few blocks to Grand Avenue where I quickly find myself in front of 3302 Grand, the Clay home from 1947 to 1961 and recently restored with the great help of Philly's George Bochetto.
The historical marker announces that Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born on Jan, 17, 1942 at Louisville General Hospital and lived here with parents Odessa and Cassius Sr. and brother Rudolph.
My drive from the funeral home has taken 45 minutes. Ali's final ride to his home had taken several hours.
I stop in the museum/gift shop/ticket office next to the home. Ali's brother, Rahman Ali, is holding court. I take a tour of the1200 square-foot house; its remodel completed just weeks after Ali's death.
Seems impossibly small for such a big life, the bedroom a young Cassius shared with his brother, the rec room completed in 1957, with a movie on Ali's life now playing there on a loop.
Back in the car and a few minutes later, I am on Broadway, which leaves the West End and cuts right through downtown, a straight shot that ends at Cave Hill Cemetery. Pass Stewart's Pawn Shop, too many McDonald's to count, a courthouse and the classic old Brown Hotel, which housed the Smarty Jones people in 2004 and the Villanova people in 2016.
The trip is nearly over, an hour of real-time driving before I enter the cemetery and head for the administrative office. There is no need to ask, the man just points me to the green line in the road which heads to Section U and a single grave site in the Twin Lakes/Scattering Garden area of the massive cemetery that predates the Civil War.
Surrounded by wonderful landscaping with enough room for a dozen more members of Ali's family, six gray limestone steps lead to where the champ is buried: Muhammad Ali, January 17, 1942-June 3, 2016, with this wonderful inscription: "He took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience, one teaspoon of generosity, one pint of kindness, he took one quarter of laughter, one pinch of concern and then he mixed willingness with happiness, he added lots of faith and he stirred it up well, then he spread it over a span of a lifetime and he served each and every person he met.''
So it is a year now minus a few hours since Ali died. A better boxer has never been born, but that wasn't it, that was never it.
The magnificent headstone atop the incline beyond the grave reads ALI in large letters, with the fine print just below: "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room in heaven.''