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Spalding renames building where Muhammad Ali learned to box after his bike was stolen

A red Schwinn bicycle hangs in homage to boxing legend Muhammad Ali on the newly renamed Columbia Gym on Spalding’s campus. Spalding University photo

As the story goes, one night in 1954, 12-year-old Cassius Clay was attending an event in a building that housed the Columbia Gym in his Louisville, Kentucky, hometown. When he came outside, he discovered his new red Schwinn bicycle was missing.

The crying child reported the theft to policeman Joe Martin and told the officer he would whip whoever had taken it. Martin told Clay: If you’re going to fight the thief, you better learn to box.

Clay began boxing lessons inside that same building. Today, it is part of the Spalding campus in downtown Louisville, housing administrative offices, an athletic training room and a fitness center. The Golden Eagles men’s and women’s basketball teams and the women’s volleyball team host games inside the gym.

And in January, the university acknowledged its deep connection to the boxer who came to be known as “The Greatest” when it reverted the name of its building from the University Center to Columbia Gym — and mounted a red Schwinn bicycle on the exterior.

The boxer’s connection to Spalding doesn’t stop with the gym. As a young teen, Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, worked at the library at Spalding, then known as Nazareth College. He cleaned and managed the front desk while the school’s founders, the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, had dinner.

“This is appropriate because Muhammad would come back to the school and keep in touch with the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth,” says Tori Murden McClure, Spalding’s president. “The connection between Spalding, the Muhammad Ali Center, the Ali family and myself made changing the name of the building the right thing to do.”

McClure, a member of the Division III Presidents Council, first met Ali while working in the Louisville mayor’s office. She went on to work for Ali and helped create the Muhammad Ali Center, which opened in November 2005. She became president at Spalding in 2010.

After Ali died June 3, 2016, McClure had to oversee commencement the next day at Spalding. “I cried in the car all the way to the ceremony, but I was able to pull myself together,” she says. “The next morning, I just felt I had to do something to indicate that this was the building where the red bicycle was stolen.”

McClure remembered her husband stored his daughter’s old red Schwinn bicycle in their garage attic. After cleaning off the cobwebs and tying ribbons near the wheels, McClure took the bicycle to campus and hung it from a second-floor window.

“I just wanted to give a little nod to Muhammad,” McClure says.

It was the first of three red Schwinns to take the place of honor. She took down the first because she feared someone might think it disrespectful to Ali’s memory, but even the mayor called to ask why she had removed it.

Another bike went up — which was, ironically enough, stolen.

The bicycle that hangs outside the Columbia Gym now is a reminder of the man who inspired Spalding’s need-based Muhammad Ali Scholars program, which began in 2017 and distributes $1.2 million annually to students.

This red Schwinn, attached to the building with steel cables, isn’t going anywhere.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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