Tavis Smiley and Muhammad Ali speak during a TV interview.

Tavis Smiley and Muhammad Ali speak during a TV interview.

Credit:

Courtesy of Tavis Smiley

The defining moment of my life occurred when I was just 12 years old.

I was falsely accused of something by the minister at my church, and my father, who was both a deacon and a church trustee, in a momentary lapse of judgment, beat me so severely that it put me in the hospital.

That incident essentially ruined my relationship with my dad during those all-important adolescent years, and we were basically estranged well into my adulthood.

The great freedom fighter Frederick Douglass once said, "It's easier to build strong children than it is to repair broken men."

I was a broken man, struggling emotionally for years with how to repair the relationship with my father, whom I'd long since forgiven, but with whom I still didn't have a loving relationship.

Enter Muhammad Ali.

As a child, my fondest memories of the good times with my dad all revolved around watching those historic Ali fights on TV. My dad loved Ali — not just for his mastery of the sweet science in the ring, but for his courage to be a truthteller.

And I'd never seen a man so willing to speak the truth, no matter the consequences. And so, Ali, the freest Black man I'd ever seen, became my hero, too.

I could never have imagined that I'd grow up to meet the champ, interview him many times, hang out with him, and eventually be honored to call him a friend and a brother. But sometimes your life exceeds your dreams.

I hosted an event in his honor one night, and decided to surprise my dad by taking him as my guest. I reserved a seat for my dad at the head table, right next to Ali.

I guess you can imagine how this story ends. I've only seen my dad cry twice in his life: once when his father died, and the night he met Muhammad Ali.

Ali was always the people's champ, but his lifetime of giving to others is what he'll be most treasured for. He felt that his love and service to everyday people was the rent he paid for the space he occupied.

And as such, he always made you feel like you were the most important person in the room.

He certainly made my dad feel that way, and every time I saw the champ from that night forward, I gave him a big hug and thanked him profusely for being the healing that helped to repair my relationship with my father.

In a year where we've lost some good ones, the world is especially going to miss The Greatest of All Time.

We all owe Muhammad Ali a debt that we can never repay. I know I do.

The Tavis Smiley Show is distributed by PRI to public radio stations across the country.

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