Drysdale, closest confidants knew for years he was carrying the illness

April 09, 1992|By Marc Stein | Marc Stein,Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES -- The shock, the sadness, those feelings are universal. The surprise is not. Arthur Ashe having AIDS was not a secret to everyone.

"I'll never forget the moment because it's a traumatic piece of news," Cliff Drysdale said yesterday, recalling what Ashe revealed to him in 1989. "The one thing he said when he told me was, 'You know, it kind of focuses you. I'm writing in a more focused manner than I ever have.'

"Arthur even then saw the positive in this disaster."

At an emotional news conference in New York -- gloomy for tennis, the world and especially Ashe -- the only black man to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open said he contracted the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion during heart surgery in either 1979 or 1983.

Ashe, Drysdale and others in his "silent and generous conspiracy" had kept it hushed for almost four years.

"He told me a few years ago that he was infected," Drysdale said in a telephone interview from Florida, where he and Ashe broadcast the men's and women's finals in last month's International Players Championships in Key Biscayne.

"We talked about it at the time. He wanted to maintain his own privacy, which I very much respected. It's just a horrible thing."

Throughout his four decades in the game, few associated "horrible" with Ashe. If someone did, it was probably something Ashe was trying to police. From the start of his career, Ashe asked questions, tried to make things better. And he encountered years of opposition.

Mostly he prevailed. Possibly more successful as an activist than he was as a player, Ashe managed to:

* Lead the movement that became the Association of Tennis Professionals. Today, the men run their tour.

* Facilitate the ban of South Africa from Davis Cup competition because of its apartheid policies.

* Formulate a plan with the U.S. Tennis Association aimed at bringing the sport to more children, especially minorities.

* Criticize the NCAA's approval of Proposition 42 in 1989, saying that the standards of a 2.0 grade-point average and a score of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test were too low. "You really don't care about us as students," Ashe said of blacks. "You care about us as athletes to fill your stadiums and arenas."

"I remember a guy who was charismatic, with a tremendous amount of poise," said UCLA tennis coach Glenn Bassett, an assistant when Ashe played for the Bruins, whom he led to the NCAA title in 1965.

"At UCLA, he never missed a basketball game. He still belongs to our tennis boosters group."

Only now, it's Ashe who needs the boost.

His triumphant days as captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team -- America won it twice with Ashe sitting courtside -- and the even happier times he experienced in 1975, when he dissected the thought-to-be-invincible Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon final, don't exactly rush to the forefront. Ashe has been battling AIDS privately since 1988.

"He hasn't been overly well the past few years, but I didn't have a suspicion that it might be what they say it is," said Hunter Delatour, who was USTA president while Ashe was Davis Cup captain. "Four years ago, people weren't coming out with things like this. I'm not so sure that they do now."

The whispers began in November, the month that gave us Magic Johnson's announcement and the first major tremor in the athletes-with-AIDS realm. At the Paris Open, Drysdale was pulled aside and asked if Ashe had contracted the virus.

Drysdale, ESPN's foremost tennis voice, remembers the feeling of not knowing how to respond. It was fact for a select group of Ashe confidants.

Or so Drysdale thought.

"One of the Australian players came up to me," Drysdale said. "I told Arthur about that two or three weeks later. I told him that 'you're going to have to come to terms with the fact that more people know about this than you're comfortable with.'

"He didn't say much, but we talked mainly about the Magic Johnson thing and the fact that [Ashe] would need to make a decision. I just left it with him."

The 48-year-old Ashe -- who sometimes writes a column for The Washington Post and recently finished his third book, "A Hard Road to Glory," a three-volume history of black athletes -- remained steadfast in his desire to keep private.

Just like in the 1968 U.S. Open -- the first of its kind -- Ashe did what he wanted. That year, Ashe beat Tom Okker in the final and rejected the prize money to keep his amateur status.

Ashe took home $280 for 10 days of trouble. Okker, a pro, collected the $14,000 Ashe passed up.

"I think he has made the game of tennis [interesting] to a lot of people and a lot of kids who never would have thought of playing tennis," said Barry MacKay, an early opponent of Ashe and his HBO broadcast partner at Wimbledon. "Millions of kids are playing and it's all because of Arthur Ashe. That alone is a big thing. He's one of the guys who cuts across into the big world."

Chris Evert said in a statement: "Arthur is one of the great human beings ever to play the game of tennis. It just seems so unfair that in his young life he has had a heart attack, open-heart surgery and now has to be stricken with this virus.

"I've known Arthur for 20 years and he's always been a gentleman and a great ambassador for tennis. I'm praying for him."

Who isn't?

"I think his contribution to the sport is almost incalculable at every level," Drysdale said. "If he ends up being a spokesman for AIDS, I think he'll be very effective.

"The guy is a hero. The fact that he has AIDS is a tragedy. I really hope it will be seen that way."

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