A tragedy befalls a champion

April 13, 1992

Sadness and shock greeted the announcement that tennis great Arthur Ashe is suffering from AIDS. Mr. Ashe, the second superstar athlete to fall victim to the deadly human immunodeficiency virus recently, put the best face on things by saying he'd join "Magic" Johnson as an ambassador for sufferers. But as Sun columnist Mike Littwin has observed, there is no silver lining to a cloud as bleak as AIDS.

The tragedy of a disease so unerringly fatal as AIDS is that it cuts short the lives of men and women who could add so much to their communities. When an Arthur Ashe is the victim, the entire nation loses. For Mr. Ashe was much more than a sports star, almost from the first days of his historic climb from the obscurity of segregated Richmond to the top of the world of tennis.

He was from the beginning a fighter for change. At age 12, he accompanied his father on a foray to test the barriers of segregation at all-white tennis courts near his home. He lost that battle, but remained committed to the battle for equal rights for minorities all his life. At least a part of that drive, he acknowledges, came from his teachers.

He has described himself as an "ironic beneficiary" of segregated education -- with few careers open to black college graduates, many of the brightest wound up teaching school. His teachers, victims of harsh racial exclusions themselves, emphasized contention as well as preparation, a sense of mission as well as excellence in study -- character and demeanor required to perform well in competition with the whites who would exclude them.

In addition, the teachers and mentors who helped speed the young Arthur Ashe on his way to the top emphasized grace, in winning and in losing. Today, with public revelation of his private torment, and the stigma still attached to AIDS added to the crushing knowledge that his life is to be cut tragically short, Arthur Ashe continues to impress onlookers with the character of his performance.

It is a performance many would wish he did not have to make, with his wife and his young daughter by his side. But as he has in so many other arenas, Arthur Ashe carried it off like the true champion he is.

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