My gift to Ali: Hope for peace

In my 61 years, I have visited more than 125 countries. Wherever I traveled, as soon as it was discovered I had anything to do with sports, someone asked if I knew Muhammad Ali. Even the first time I visited Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, he asked if I knew Ali. When I said, "Yes," he smiled wryly and said, "I do, too!"

On this day, Jan. 17, we celebrate Ali's 65th birthday. I doubt there is another living American whose birth would be hailed more universally. We first met at Kutsher's Country Club in Monticello, N.Y., in the early 1960s when he was viewed as a brash and bold young man. His political side had not emerged publicly, and he was still known as Cassius Clay.

Some 15 years later, Ali had been through the maelstrom. His February 1964 victory over Sonny Liston allowed him to proclaim "I am the greatest" before a startled boxing world. He never stopped startling people after joining the Nation of Islam -- often called Black Muslims at the time -- and then refusing to fight in a war many of us opposed at the time. I marched against the Vietnam War, but Ali gave up a lucrative boxing career to stand behind his principles. He did more for the antiwar movement than many of the hundreds of thousands marching against the war. Although many white Americans and most of the American media saw him as racially divisive and unpatriotic, Ali became our hero. To those around the world who opposed the war, he helped them see that America was not a monolith. To those who saw injustices to people of color across the globe, he became a giant who stood for justice.

He had also become the greatest athlete of the 20th century. That gave him the platform.

Once he was considered racially divisive, especially after he proclaimed allegiance to the Nation of Islam and took his antiwar stand. Today, perhaps along with Mandela, Ali undoubtedly has become the public figure who best helps unite people across racial groups and makes them feel comfortable in the presence of people who do not look like themselves.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had just taken a job at the United Nations in 1978. The Vietnam War was over. The Civil Rights movement had gone quiet. And the antiapartheid movement was under way in an attempt to isolate South Africa, with boycotts of trade, bank loans, oil and sports. Ali already had refused to fight there while the U.N. hosted a branch of Chemical Bank, a lender to South Africa. I got together with Kofi Annan, then a U.N. staff member from Ghana, and another staff member from New Zealand to try to figure out a way to get Chemical out of the building. The man from Ghana asked if I could get Ali to speak to the general assembly to help our efforts. A few months later, Ali spoke for an hour in the General Assembly Hall, which often was empty but on this occasion was packed to hear the global hero that Ali had become.

That day started a real friendship with Ali that lasts to this day.

Our families have been together on many occasions, often several times a year. Lonnie, Ali's amazing wife, is a dear friend. Their youngest son, Assad, has played with our daughter, Emily. When Emily introduced her boyfriend, Steven, to Ali last summer, Ali playfully reached his arm out, rested his fist on Steven's chin and told him to be good to Emily. Howard Bingham, Ali's best friend and a world-renowned photographer, has become a good friend of ours, too. I consider the friendship with the Alis and Howard to be one of sport's biggest gifts to my family.

Some two decades after Ali spoke to the U.N., Annan became the first U.N. staff member to be named secretary general of the United Nations. He asked me to help get Ali to be his messenger of peace. For Annan, Ali was a logical choice because he had worked the globe, traveling to more than 200 cities annually. His message was always about healing.

After Sept. 11, 2001, an unprecedented wave of hate against Muslims swept through American communities. In a fundraising concert seen around the world, Ali stood and told the world he was a Muslim, and that Allah was a God of peace and justice. I do not think anyone else could have slowed the bandwagon of hate rolling through our cities. Ali again stood tall to stop the hate.

Despite Parkinson's, Ali continues to travel the world, making friends and working for peace. He has won the admiration of generations, even those who never saw him box. After the messenger of peace ceremony with Annan, Ali was asked to meet a march of 500 children who had walked from Harlem to the United Nations Plaza to commemorate International Children's Day. It was organized by Annan's wife. U.N. security was petrified as Ali walked into this crowd without guards surrounding him. They did not know he loves to be with people, especially children. These children, who didn't know his history, were simply swept away by the stature and charisma of this man. I bet that close to 100 ended up in his arms.

The scene reminded me of the night Emily, then 5, met Ali. She was shy, and standing with my wife, Ann, when Ali caught her eye from the other side of a table. This little girl, who at that age took 15-20 minutes to warm to friends she hadn't seen for a week, flew across the room and jumped into his open arms. That was in 1994.

Ali called himself "The Greatest" as he dispatched Liston for the first time. Most people thought it was clever or funny, but hardly true in February 1964. Four decades later, the world calls him "The Greatest."

As he celebrates his 65th birthday in Arizona with Lonnie and friends, I say "Happy birthday, dear friend!" How perfect it would be if our gift to Ali was to stop the hatred of Muslims and realize this peacemaker better represents the millions of Muslims around the world than the small band of terrorists who use the name of Allah to spread hate and destruction.

Muhammad, I love you, and I am hardly alone.

Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.