Muhammad Ali Center Paints Inspiring Portrait of Boxer's Life

The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., is a museum not so much about history as it is about the spirit of a kid from a little house in Louisville who somehow saw himself astride the whole world and who is still daring to laugh.

Ali and his wife, Lonnie, took "Good Morning America" anchor Diane Sawyer on a tour.

The center encompasses everything that is Ali. It all started with the red bike he got for Christmas.

"Someone stole it, and he went in to tell the policeman there that someone had stolen his bike and he was gonna beat them up," Lonnie Ali told Sawyer. "So smart, Joe Martin … said, 'Well, why don't you come learn to fight first?' And then he got him into the boxing at the Columbia Gym, and the rest is history."

But Ali was a child of segregation, and even after he had won an Olympic gold medal he came back home to hear these words at a restaurant counter: "Hey you. What you doing down here? You know I can't serve you."

"Those are harsh words to hear," Lonnie said.

Remembering a Remarkable Life

At the Ali Center, Sawyer and the Alis sat together and watched a movie of his remarkable life. The film is based on a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling "If."

"If you can dream and not make dreams your master, walk with kings and not lose the common touch," the poem reads.

Lonnie said she didn't know whether Ali's battle with Parkinson's disease made remembering the past more difficult.

"You know, Diane, Muhammad not only looks at that film, just any film. And I don't know if he thinks about Parkinson's," she said. "He doesn't think about what, you know, what his limitations are now or what it may keep him from doing. He always thinks about what he's going to do tomorrow. … And I think when he looks back at those films, I think it inspires him as well. And sometimes I think he's in awe of himself."

She said that he could still speak with her some in the morning, but that the medication he took for the Parkinson's made it difficult by noon.

"I understand Muhammad's signals and it's sort of -- some of it is a silent conversation," she said. "I can look at his face. I can tell what he wants or what he's thinking."

There is also a photo in the museum of the day Lonnie met Ali, when she was still just a young girl.

"As you see, I haven't changed much, Diane," Lonnie joked.

At the time, then 22-year-old Ali, who was named Cassius Clay at the time, teased an awe-struck Lonnie.

He told Lonnie that he was going to marry her when she grew up.

"I have found out that Muhammad had said that to a lot of little girls," she said. "It wasn't just me. I can't say it was just me, because it's not true."

Ali, 65, had just been diagnosed with Parkinson's when they met. The couple has now been married 20 years.

Despite Ali's illness, Lonnie said she never felt robbed.

"Our life is so full, so rich," she said. "You know, we have nothing to be sorry for, nothing to regret, and nothing to … to pout about."

Lighting the Olympic Torch

Back in the museum, visitors can put their hands in a mold of Ali for a message about gratitude and giving back.

"Children touch Muhammad's heart in a way, you know, I don't think anyone else can," Lonnie said. "He calls them 'refugees from heaven.' So, they're little angels and he just, he just believes, you know, that all children have, or should have a bright future and -- he'd do anything he could to help them."

In another pavilion of the center is his daughter Laila Ali giving boxing lessons.

And another pavilion offers a tribute to a moment no one will ever forget: the lighting of the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic Games.

"It was a big decision, but it was such an honor, such an honor. … But when he tried to light the cauldron and it didn't light, I was thinking, 'It's not lighting. What's wrong? It's not lighting. He's holding it there,'" Lonnie said. "But once it lit, the swell of -- of emotion that went through that crowd, through that arena, it was, it was amazing. … There were tears. There were shouts of joy."

Lonnie believes she knows what Ali would say to athletes today.

"I can only surmise what I think Muhammad would say just from knowing him. But I think Muhammad would say, do as much as you can, you know, because that's the way you will be remembered," she said. "God gives you special gifts and the more God gives you, the more he expects."