Comedian Billy Crystal hailed his “big brother” Muhammad Ali as “a tremendous bolt of lightning” at a funeral service Friday, revealing that Ali helped him raise money for an ongoing Hebrew University Israeli-Palestinian theater project, and that his longtime friend stop using a sports club when he realized it didn’t welcome Jews.
Crystal received a standing ovation for his speech at an interfaith memorial service at a Louisville sports arena packed with celebrities, athletes and politicians, including former president Bill Clinton, Sen. Orrin Hatch, director Spike Lee, former NFL great Jim Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger, soccer star David Beckham, Whoopi Goldberg and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The comedian said he’d known Ali, who died last Friday at 74 after a 42-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. They first met when Crystal, then a struggling comedian, was implausibly invited to perform a three-minute skit he had worked up, in which he imitated both Ali and sports journalist Howard Cosell, at a high-profile televised event.
The skit, Crystal recalled, featured “Ali” telling “Cosell,” that “From now on, I want to be known as Izzy Yitzkowitz. I’m an Orthodox Jew. Hai-am the greatest of all time…,” a play on Ali’s conversion to Islam and name change from Cassius Clay.
“No one had ever done him before,” Crystal recalled of that evening. “He was loving it… He gave me this big bear hug and he whispered in my ear, ‘You’re my little brother,’ which is what he always called me until the last time that I saw him.”
Crystal said Ali was always there for him, most memorably when Crystal “was being honored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem” and Ali “did all this all promotion” for the event, came to the dinner, sat with Crystal’s family and took numerous photographs — “the most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend.”
Thanks to Ali’s involvement, said Crystal, enough money was raised to endow, at the university in Israel, a theater group called “Peace through the performing arts,” under which Israeli and Palestinian “actors, writers and directors all work together in peace creating original works of art.”
Crystal said Ali loved the idea, and that the project “thrives to this day.”
The comedian also recalled sitting alongside Ali at Cosell’s funeral in 1995, when Ali whispered to him, “Little brother, do you think he’s wearing his hairpiece?”
Crystal said, “I don’t think so.”
Ali: “Well then how will God recognize him?”
Crystal: “Champ, once he opens his mouth, God will know.”
The two started laughing, Crystal remembered, “at a funeral — me with Muhammad Ali, like two little kids.”
Crystal’s final personal story was about Ali inviting him to run with him at a club, and Crystal saying he couldn’t, because they didn’t allow Jewish members. “I’m a black Muslim, and they let me run there,” Ali marveled, then promised, “Little brother, I’m never gonna run there again.” And, said Crystal, “he didn’t.”
The comedian concluded by describing Ali as “a tremendous bolt of lightning, created by Mother Nature out of thin air, a fantastic combination of power and beauty.
“We’ve seen still photographs of lightning at the moment of impact, ferocious in its strength, magnificent in its elegance. And at the moment of impact it lights up everything around it so you can see everything clearly. Muhammad Ali struck us in the middle of America’s darkest night.”
Crystal went on: “Ali forced us to take a look at ourselves. This brash young man thrilled us, angered us, confused us, challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace and taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people and not walls.”
Ali, said Crystal, “ran with the gods and walked with crippled and smiled at the foolishness of it all. He is gone but he will never die. He was my big brother.”