Life has never been fair to Ashe, yet his dignity, grace march on

Phil Jackman

April 09, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Unfortunately, the admission by civil rights activist and former tennis star Arthur Ashe that he has AIDS makes anything written or said on the subject sound like an obituary. Put that out of your mind.

Prospects are excellent that Arthur will continue a full and productive life for some time to come, given the fact he has learned well how to live with this dreaded affliction for more than three years already.

How unfair can life be? We're not talking about sexual promiscuity, filthy needles being stuck into drug-craving arms or heredity and environment here, but of a terrific man catching an almost unfathomable series of lousy breaks.

Consider two heart attacks and double-bypass surgery just as he entered the so-called prime time of life. Then, a few years ago, there was brain surgery, which, ironically, is when Ashe learned that human immunodeficiency (HIV) lay straight ahead.

Long before the physical, there was the mental, the prejudice, bigotry and apartheid of a young black entering the white world of tennis, first in the United States, then internationally.

The kid from Richmond, who had to leave his home city to develop his skills, never took a backward step. In the realm of sports, Arthur was and is a Ghandi, a Martin Luther King. He never kicked a door down; instead, with his words and actions, he talked his way in, then gained invitation without reservation.

Just as Jackie Robinson was the man to spearhead obliteration of the racial barrier in baseball, Ashe was the ideal man to lead the charge for change all over, not just here.

He did it with intelligence and control, always working from within. He had the necessary makeup to pull it off, respect for one and all always serving as his calling card. He once revealed, "I never once in my life talked back to my father." Not a bad record for a person who lost his mother at age 6.

Bud Collins, the writer and broadcaster who probably knows Ashe as well as anyone, describes Arthur as a "stylish sort of guy nowhere evident on the men's side of tennis."

While players named Ilie Nastase, Dennis Ralston and Jimmy Connors were laying groundwork for all manner of outrageousbehavior in the game, Ashe never allowed himself the luxury of a blowup on court.

"I'm just too conscious of the effect it might have on my image," he'd explain. Of course his was a lot more than an image of a simple man but that of a race, whether he liked it or not.

Ashe's knack for hitting a tennis ball, superbly when serving, stronger on the backhand side than the forehand and solidly at net, was the early key. It gained him a college education at UCLA and that meant a true education, not just another jock sliding through until time came to cash in as a professional.

He served as an Army officer, taught at West Point and carried the banner of the amateur U.S. Lawn Tennis Association because these were noble things to do. How tough was it? Brutal.

"The last thing I am is a loner," Ashe once said, "yet for years I was the only black player on tour. I have opinions on everything. I don't care how tired I am, I'm always thinking. I think sometimes I'm too open-minded."

His best friend, teammate and roommate at UCLA, Charlie Pasarell, confirmed the latter by saying, "Arthur can be absolutely objective. I think of him as a multiracial person."

This is what made him so effective off the tennis court. He pushed for equality in the sport, attacking the apartheid policies of South Africa, always an influential world leader in the game. Ultimately, that country lost all its rights and privileges in tennis.

A key man in the formation of a players' union and its president for a half-dozen years, Arthur, by his accomplishments and example, served as a role model for all kids. As an amateur and 25-year-old lieutenant on leave, he won the first U.S. Open that was truly open.

Later, Ashe took the Australian Open before achieving his crowning moment as a tennis player. In 1975, Connors was just about unbeatable. Ashe took him in four sets at the Wimbledon final and, observers say, it was one of the most emotional victories and warmest moments ever at the Big W. For a few years after, Centre Court at the All England Club was known as "King Arthur's Court."

The last several years, as an author of books, a newspaper columnist and a network tennis commentator, Ashe has not shied from his convictions. While some coaches griped about the effect of Proposition 48 and the attempt to improve college admittance standards on black athletes, Arthur, in effect, said raise the standards higher, get some of these guys out of the gym and into the library.

A couple of weeks ago, a call arrived and it was Ashe, calling collect. Sometimes, I don't even accept collect calls from the kids. I was nervous. The questions and the conversation had to be good. That's the type respect he elicits and will always.

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