Byko: Philly lawyer helped save Muhammad Ali's boyhood home

3 x 2 rahman ali and bochetto
Rahman Ali (left), brother of Muhammad Ali, with Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto at the boxer's boyhood home, now a museum. Bochetto is co-owner of the museum.

IN DEATH, Louisville pulled out all the stops for its favorite son, Muhammad Ali.

But it took two out-of-towners to rescue and restore the champion's boyhood home - a one-story, pink frame house that had become a broken-down, rat-infested shambles.

Then, Louisville didn't care, or so it seemed.

But Las Vegas real estate investor Jared Weiss cared, and so did Philadelphia lawyer George Bochetto.

When Bochetto - a onetime Pennsylvania state boxing commissioner - heard the home was on the market in 2012, he jumped. It is understatement to say Bochetto hero-worshipped the heavyweight champion-turned-humanitarian.

To use a boxing metaphor, Bochetto was beaten to the punch by Weiss, who bought the property for $70,000. Undeterred, Bochetto contacted Weiss and proposed a partnership. Weiss agreed.

They had the house in western Louisville, but not a solid plan. It took a couple of years for them to decide to turn it into a museum that would look just as it did when Ali (then Cassius Clay), his parents, and brother Rahman lived there from 1947-61.

Work began last year, with the partners pouring at least $500,000 into the project. In what seems like providential timing, the Muhammad Ali Childhood Home Museum opened to the public Saturday, May 28, just days before The Greatest passed away.

Bochetto was in Louisville for the museum opening, then returned after Ali's death and attended services with Ali's family. The long funeral motorcade passed by the museum at 3302 Grand Avenue, and Bochetto quoted Rahman as saying the crowds were thicker there than at any other point along the route.

"The project is elevating the west end from obscurity and deprivation to celebration and magnificence," Bochetto told me in a Saturday telephone interview.

Due to the heavy demand because of the funeral - attended by heads of state and Hollywood stars - the museum's usual 10 a.m.-5 p.m. hours were extended to 9 a.m.-9 p.m.

It has been reported that an adjacent property was purchased by Bochetto and Weiss for about $75,000 and is used as a gift shop, ticket office and staging area.

What has not been reported, until now, is that Bochetto on Saturday closed a deal to buy the property on the other side of the home for $40,000 for a use Bochetto was not ready to disclose.

The museum was not set up as a nonprofit. "I did not want anyone else to tell me how best to re-create the home or how to preserve Muhammad's most important legacy. This was to be the purest vision of the legacy of Muhammad Ali, without interference or baloney from committees," said Bochetto.

Neither he nor Weiss will get one red cent out of the project.

Bochetto serves (without pay) as managing director of the museum and has hired a program director, tour guides, and security. "My goal here is to get the entire setup to be self-sustaining in perpetuity and we will do this with ticket sales, gift-shop purchases, donations," said Bochetto, who's planning an annual black-tie dinner as a funding source. Admission prices are modest, $8 for adults, $5 for teens and seniors, children free.

What you won't find in the museum is any boxing memorabilia - and Bochetto has a ton of Ali collectibles - because Ali was not yet the Golden Gloves, Olympic, and heavyweight champion he would become.

What you will find is the correct furniture and artifacts of the period, never-before-seen photos of Ali as a child, interviews with neighbors and classmates, and a 15-minute documentary done by Evan Bochetto, George's son and a producer and director who lives and works in L.A.

What George Bochetto has done here is more than a labor of love. It is a labor of devotion.

"Muhammad Ali is one of the most significant and magnificent human beings our country has ever produced and I want to be a part of sustaining his legacy and promoting the thing that mattered most to Muhammad Ali," Bochetto said.

Ali was dedicated to "showing youngsters that no matter how modest their beginnings, no matter how many obstacles in their way, if they learn, they can accomplish," said Bochetto, who as an orphan learned to box and how to overcome obstacles.

What Bochetto has done here is a good thing, a thing full of heart in which we, as fellow Philadelphians, can feel pride.

stubyko@phillynews.com

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky

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