2 Doors Down: The Bond Between Allan Houston’s Family and Muhammad Ali

by Jonah Ballow
NYKnicks.com
@jonahballow

Allan Houston’s second birthday was unforgettable due to a guest appearance from one of the most influential sports figures in history. 

Allan's mother, Alice Houston grew up just two houses from the Clays in Louisville, Kentucky on the now famous landmark Grand Avenue.  At 15 years old, Alice and her brother developed a friendship with Cassius Clay prior to his ascension to the top of the boxing world.  The neighborhood bond grew over the years between Alice and Cassius and to this day, she remembers the impactful messages he would deliver at the young age of 21.  Specifically, the time when Clay gave $25 to her mother just to get something nice as a gesture to friends of the family.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Just remember this Alice to remember how you treat people on your way up because these are the same people you are going to meet coming down.’  I was 16 at that particular time but over my life that has always resonated and became very symbolic and at the core of who he was,” Alice stated.

Alice would eventually marry and move into her childhood home with Wade Houston on the same block where Muhammad Ali returned for periodic visits after legally changing his name and capturing the heavyweight championship of the world.  Former Knick, Allan Houston spent his early years in that house on Grand Avenue and enjoyed a special visit from the cultural icon on his second birthday.    

“As Muhammad would do, he would just appear and you opened the door and there he is with his entourage,” Alice laughed.

Wade added, “In this particular visit, he had just fought Ken Norton and his jaw was broken and it was not wired shut but it was wired to the point where he couldn’t really talk as well as he normally does and you could tell then he was not as talkative but still he just came by the house and he would talk and he had a great visit with the kids.”

On Saturday morning, the news spread of Ali’s death at the age of 74 following a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease.  The world reacted with an outpouring of fond memories and a celebration of a charismatic individual that elevated the sport of boxing through his spectacular athletic movement and brash style of trash talk.  On the day of Allan’s second birthday, Wade reflects on the other side of Ali’s magnetic personality.

“Most kids at that age don’t go to strangers.  But, the thing I noticed about Ali was that we had like 20 kids, two and 3-year old kids and all of them sat on his lap and he was holding them and playing with them, which is very unusual for a stranger to interact like that with a bunch of kids,” Wade described.

Ali attended this birthday party back in April 1973, less than a month after a devastating loss to Ken Norton and suffering from a broken jaw.  The pain wasn’t an issue on this day.  Alice depicts a scene where Ali would quickly morph into a showman when a crowd appeared near him.

“He could transform faster than anybody I’ve ever seen. Transform into a master storyteller, entertainer, magician,” she laughed.

As Allan matured and realized his dream of reaching the NBA, the connection with Ali continued.  During his rookie season, Allan met up with Ali at a bar mitzvah in Hollywood and the two shared a special encounter at an award show years later.

“He literally put my hand up and made it into a fist and put it up against his face and then he made that face that he always makes.  I looked at the camera and thought, man I can’t believe I’m about to take a picture of me looking like I’m punching the champ,” Allan reflected.

Ali’s achievements in the ring made him a larger than life sports figure.  The three-time world champion is revered for his battles inside the ropes but for those that were close to Ali, the fights were difficult to watch.  An assistant coach at Louisville at the time, Wade would often ask for Ali’s support in convincing recruits to attend the University.  Ali always obliged to help lift the athletic program in his hometown.  As a friend and husband of Alice’s childhood neighbor, the generosity Ali displayed was particularly special for Wade.  However, watching the famous wars between Ali and Joe Frazier took a toll on the family.

“I would cry.  I mean, literally tears would come to my eyes watching him.  It was so painful for me to watch,” Wade admitted.

In 1966, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces and was stripped of his title.  This stance changed the public perspective on athletes and placed Ali in the crosshairs for public debate during a tumultuous period of time in the country’s history.  For three years, Ali was absent from the boxing game due his resistance to join the armed forces during the Vietnam War. 

“When you think about why he will be the greatest, obviously people will always remember him as the greatest because of his boxing but it’s because of really what he was willing to give up,” Allan declared. 

Ali’s funeral will take place in Louisville, Kenutcky along with a procession through the streets where the Clays and Houstons resided.  Alice and Wade still live in Kentucky and the strong bond they share with Ali is a significant part of their family history. 

“Muhammad Ali has been a part, whether from near or far of this family a long time and so has his journey,” Alice maintained. 

She added, “But the man himself was a loving and humble and generous and committed.  That’s what the world lost and the world will miss.”

Allan’s second birthday was a celebration and while the passing of “The Greatest” evokes sadness across the world, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate Ali’s life with those who knew him best.

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