MURRELL COLUMN: Front-row seat to immeasurable greatness

Published 4:10 pm Thursday, June 9, 2016

Muhammad Ali’s death just hours after we roasted Wade Phillips is one of the worst coincidences I’ve experienced in my career. The very day we were looking forward to turned into the evening we hoped wouldn’t happen for years to come.

Yet, looking back on things, I can say I had a front-row seat to greatness when the stars descended on my location.

One of the greatest human beings to walk the face of the earth served as grand marshal of the 1989 University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff homecoming parade. Such presence of greatness among mankind was something, although heavily celebrated, we still could expect in our town, which reeked of the smell of money thanks to the foul scent of the International Paper mill and short drive from Little Rock.

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Just six years earlier, Julius Erving visited Pine Bluff for the inaugural King Cotton Holiday Classic, a basketball tournament that helped Christian Laettner, Jason Kidd and Joe Johnson sail into national radars. The following February, Michael Jordan and No. 1-ranked North Carolina played in that same convention center, only to lose to Arkansas in the final seconds before NBC cameras.

Too bad the Peacock or Sports Illustrated cameras didn’t see what I saw that glorious November day in 1989. We were just Pine Bluff, not Manila.

I took my usual place on the white steps of the Jefferson County Courthouse, mingling with my family’s friends and watching our own town festival take off while downtown buildings were still preserved by the everyday commerce Little Rock would later suck from us. Ali was maybe 200 feet from me at the closest, when my 12-year-old cousin from Nashville had the presence to approach him for an autograph.

Autograph? Greatness? A man who changed the world and united religions? My 9-year-old mind didn’t quite process all that.

The Sports Illustrated covers? Yeah, I saw those. Classic clips with Howard Cosell? I watched a few.

The Parkinson’s disease that slowed Ali’s speech to a silence didn’t slow his touch on the lives of everyday people. Again, I could not process this so young, nor did it dawn on me to.

Soon as my cousin gave me the autograph, I processed that moment. Priceless.

Ali’s signature was still as neat and legible as my fourth-grade teacher’s handwriting.

The funny thing is, I rarely harken back to that time in Pine Bluff history. The subtlety of the presence of a former boxing champion, whose worldly and outer-worldly contributions to mankind and sacrifice to stand against a flawed government wasn’t yet something I could comprehend, was a small but very important part of a life other stars have dotted over the years.

Jerry Rice called himself the Greatest of All Time in football, and I covered his first visit to Mississippi Valley State in 20 years the season he retired.

Last Friday night’s Homecoming Roast of Wade Phillips easily is the greatest event I’ve seen in 10 months here. Jim Nantz and Chris Berman speaking via camera was just as impactful as J.J. Watt’s presence in Port Arthur. Bob West’s vision for community service put Port Arthur front-and-center on a statewide stage again, and I am beyond grateful for following up such a legend.

None of that, though, measures to the influence Ali had on the world, the impact I began to understand in the years since he led the fur-coat festival down Main Street Pine Bluff.

Saturday morning, Mom texted me: “Are you going to write a story on Muhammad Ali’s visit to Pine Bluff?”

Location, location, location is the thought that comes to mind in decisions like these. A story in the Port Arthur News wouldn’t do justice. A personal remembrance of The Champ would.

Ali’s presence before an unassuming kid aged 9 in Jefferson County, Arkansas, was maybe as great as a papal visit, none of which I could measurably value at the time.

But at an older age, it resonates with me in Jefferson County, Texas, as loudly as Ali spoke through words and action.

I.C. Murrell can be reached at 721-2435 or On Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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