Arthur Ashe has AIDS? The first reaction is that this has to be some kind of awful dream. Arthur Ashe, the man who could smile graciously under the pressure-cooker attention of a nation deeply anxious about its racial preconceptions while he consciously dismantled all pretensions of racial superiority? Arthur Ashe, the black man with the nice smile and the dominating serve who made a believer out of Jimmy Connors on Wimbledon's fabled Center Court with the whole world looking on?
Say it ain't so.
Too bad real life can never come up with the magical solutions of fairy tales. Arthur Ashe is suffering from AIDS, struggling with an intensity not even he ever matched before against an opponent that never loses. The sports world has showered him with accolades. People from many walks of life have poured out their anguish.
But accolades have been his since his boyhood; what else for a man who, while still an amateur, knocked off the Australian who had terrorized American tennis players, became the first of his race to compete for the Davis Cup, won the U.S. Open championship and as a pro became the top tennis player in the world? Such a man necessarily touches the lives of many people, even those only peripherally concerned with sports.
For black Americans, Arthur Ashe meant still more. There always have been black champions, going back to Jack Johnson, whose deeds could electrify the world. Arthur Ashe's endearing quality was that he never forgot where he came from, or those he left behind.
Born the oldest son of a black playground guardian and caretaker in segregated Richmond in 1943, Mr. Ashe learned early about the school of hard knocks. His mother died when he was 6; he had his first big confrontation with segregation when he was 12, not allowed to play on a tennis court not far from his home.
Conway Wilson, now of Washington, went to Maggie Walker High School with Arthur. He remembers Arthur's father as a stern disciplinarian. The senior Ashe was barely able to read, but he demanded hard work in school from his sons. He also taught them a strong sense of values, a foundation that helped young Arthur overcome many obstacles later in his life.
Many Americans act as if strong black fathers are a non-existent commodity as they dissect the black community's ills, but that ignores the real performance of so many men. The credit Arthur Ashe gives to his father's determination when he talks about his own pursuit of excellence should be an example for the decriers of paucity: look around.
Young Arthur moved away from his friends when he left Maggie Walker for St. Louis, where a tennis official named Richard Hudlin coached him while he finished his studies at Sumner High School. Conway went to Massachusetts, to finish at elite Phillips Exeter Academy, but he never forgot the teachers he met at the segregated Maggie Walker. Neither did Arthur who, like Mr. Wilson, kept in touch with the educators who had imbued their young charges with a strong appreciation for the history of black achievement and a sense of mission for the future.
Such stories crop up in coverage of successful black men and women, but the slant often is skewed. What usually comes next is a curious yearning to return the ''best and brightest'' blacks to the classroom to solve today's educational problems. But the real lesson here is that determination can wear down the steepest of barriers, that intellect cannot be destroyed, only underestimated, by pushing people off into disregarded corners. Those teachers channeled their frustration into the effort to prepare a new generation to break all the barriers that had held them back, not to follow in their own footsteps.
Arthur Ashe took time throughout his career to speak out on behalf of blacks in sports. He led protests against apartheid in South Africa with his prodding for boycotts by big-time tennis. He used the skills of his ''bookish'' youth to become a perceptive historian and analyst of the position of blacks in organized sports. And he put his money, time and effort into sports and education programs for inner-city youths, in the United States and in Africa.
And throughout his tenure at the top of the world of sports, he kept in touch with his friends, the people who had known him when he was not yet famous. Arthur Ashe never grew too ''big'' to remember how he got his start. He not only worked to help others climb the ladder of success, he also worked to keep in touch with his roots.
Such a man is rare, with so many in America believing the battle for racial progress is over. The disease that hurts a man like him amplifies the pain for many.
Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.