With reluctance, Arthur Ashe says he has AIDS Tennis pioneer criticizes tip to press that forced revelation.

April 09, 1992|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Staff Writer

Arthur Ashe, a pioneering black man in professional tennis and an eloquent activist in issues of race and sports, said yesterday that he has AIDS.

"I have AIDS," he said. "I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now, at this time."

In a news conference yesterday in New York City, Mr. Ashe, 48, said he and his doctors are "95 percent certain" that he contracted HIV during a blood transfusion after a second coronary bypass operation in 1983. He was not aware of his condition until a brain biopsy in September 1988 revealed that he had acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he said.

"Sadly, there is really no good reason for this to happen now. But it has happened, and I will adjust and go forward," he said of the disclosure.

Mr. Ashe decried the process that forced him to disclose a medical condition he had kept secret for 3 1/2 years. He said a reporter from USA Today phoned him after receiving an anonymous phone call revealing Mr. Ashe's condition.

"I am not running for an office of public trust. I am not the CEO of a corporation responsible to stockholders," said Mr. Ashe, the first black man to win one of tennis' Grand Slam tournaments and the first to captain a U.S. Davis Cup team. "There was no compelling medical or physical reason to go public.

"I am angry that I was put in the unenviable position of having to lie [to the reporter] to protect my family's privacy," the former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion said.

Mr. Ashe lost his composure briefly when speaking of the impact of the revelation he has AIDS on his 5-year-old daughter, Camera Elizabeth. His wife, Jeanne, came to his side and read from his statement.

"Arthur and I have to teach her how to deal with this," she said.

Resuming the news conference, Mr. Ashe said, "I am not sick, and I can function very well in all that I have been involved in.

"My wife and daughter are healthy, and both are HIV-negative," Mr. Ashe said.

Mr. Ashe had a heart attack in 1979 and underwent quadruple bypass surgery that year. However, he said, it is very likely that he was infected during a blood transfusion after a second bypass operation in 1983 -- just 18 months before blood supplies were routinely screened for the human immunodeficiency virus.

Both surgeries were performed at St. Luke's Hospital in New York. Mr. Ashe said he does not plan to sue.

It was in September 1988, he said, that his "right hand just went dead." A biopsy revealed toxoplasmosis, an infection that is one of the indicators of AIDS. A subsequent AIDS test was positive, he said.

Dr. John E. Hutchinson, director of cardiac surgery at Hackensack Medical Center since 1985, performed the surgeries in 1979 and 1983. He said he does not know how Mr. Ashe contracted HIV.

"In Mr. Ashe's case, it is possible he received the blood product," Dr. Hutchinson said. "There are many other ways to acquire this other than cardiac surgery."

Since his diagnosis, Mr. Ashe said, he has successfully undergone treatment with the anti-AIDS drug AZT.

"Having been an athlete, I had the discipline to adjust quickly to the new reality. I was very fortunate to tolerate AZT," he said.

Mr. Ashe said he received a telephone call of good wishes from President Bush and would follow the example of basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who revealed that he is HIV-positive in November, in becoming an AIDS activist.

"I have gained much insight as I've watched Earvin Johnson weave his magic around schoolchildren, and perhaps," Mr. Ashe said, "we will join hands in this."

Mr. Johnson offered his support in this statement: "I'd like to extend my full support and prayers to Arthur, his family and friends. It takes great courage and strength to make such an announcement. I'm sure Arthur will meet this challenge head on and become a leading voice in the fight to educate, raise funds and increase awareness to all, especially our youth. I applaud his decision to make his condition known and I'm eager to speak with him so that we may join forces in our efforts."

Mr. Ashe asked rhetorically, "Why not go public earlier?

"Any admission to HIV infection would have seriously, permanently and, my wife and I believed, unnecessarily infringed upon our family's right of privacy."

And, he said, "I wasn't ready to go public because there were some things I wanted to do unfettered."

Mr. Ashe burst upon the tennis world in 1963 when he became the first black to be named to a U.S. Davis Cup team. In 1965, he led the University of California Los Angeles to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tennis championship and in 1968, as a 25-year-old amateur and lieutenant in the U.S. Army, won his first U.S. Open.

In the late 1960s, he was banned from competing in South Africa and spoke out against that country's apartheid policies before a United Nations committee. He later became the first black to reach the finals of that country's Open championships.

Since his retirement from playing in 1979, Mr. Ashe has done television commentary, written for magazines and newspapers and served the United States Tennis Association.

He has also promoted tennis among black youths and is head of the Black Tennis and Sports Foundation. He is the author of "A Hard Road to Glory," a history of the black athlete in the United States.

Mr. Ashe said yesterday in New York: "I plan to continue to be active, if the public will let me."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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