Ashe is learning to live with less privacy, continue his work

May 10, 1992|By Linda Robertson | Linda Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- After Arthur Ashe told the world he had AIDS, he told his daughter.

"My wife and I sat down and told her, 'Daddy has AIDS and he doesn't feel well sometimes,' " Ashe said. "We tried to equate it to the times she felt sick without using the word sick."

For 3 1/2 years, Ashe had kept the secret with a small circle of friends and relatives. He did not tell the public or his 5-year-old daughter Camera, who was too young to understand.

On April 8, prodded by a newspaper about to reveal his condition, Ashe announced he had contracted the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. All the shields came down, for Ashe and for Camera.

"Just a few days ago, a friend of hers told her, 'Your Daddy has AIDS,' " Ashe said. "We had taught her what to say, so she responded: 'I know that.'

"She likes to say that, anyway."

Life has changed for Ashe since he held the news conference three weeks ago. He has kept an exact count of the days, because time and privacy were his most precious commodities. He has had less of both since he was thrust back into the limelight he had not known since he was Wimbledon champion in 1975.

"My life has changed a lot -- my home life and my life as a public figure," Ashe said during a weekend visit to Key Biscayne to help conduct a three-day clinic for junior black players. "I've had to rearrange things."

Ashe, 48, said he is approached at airports, in stores and restaurants -- every time he ventures out of his New York home.

"I get stared at a lot more," he said. "But most people engage me in a positive way -- which has been the biggest surprise. They say, 'Hang in there,' 'We're with you,' 'It took a lot of courage to come forward.' "

Ashe has received hundreds of letters from around the world, including hand-written ones from Nelson Mandela and former Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Ashe said he and his wife, professional photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy, have prepared for the time when the outpouring of affection will fade.

"I know that will happen," he said. "Nothing stays on red alert indefinitely."

He has been bombarded with requests to do talk shows, write books and give speeches. He has turned down most of them. But he will speak to the National Press Club later this month about privacy and the media.

"I was talking with my friend Frank Deford, and he said I wouldn't believe the debate sparked by my situation, about what is truly private and what the public has a right to know," Ashe said. "I saw Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton on TV -- with no moderator. For the first time, they just talked about the campaign issues because there was no moderator poking into their private lives."

Deford, a journalist, was part of the "silent and generous conspiracy," a person who knew of Ashe's condition but didn't report it. Someone, though, leaked information to USA Today. When the newspaper confronted Ashe, he decided to make a formal announcement, explaining how he had received infected blood during a 1983 heart-bypass operation and how he found out he had the virus in 1988.

"I still harbor anger over being forced to come forth," he said. "And I probably always will."

Ashe said he won't be forced into becoming an advocate for any particular AIDS organizations.

"I will definitely become a spokesperson for AIDS awareness, but I won't succumb to pressure to do one thing or another," he said. "As in any crisis situation, there are a lot of zealots who, under the imperative of finding a solution, can justify certain behavior. I'll do what I decide to do."

For a Renaissance man like Ashe, that means not abandoning any of his other projects, including work on the second edition of his three-volume history of black athletes, "A Hard Road to Glory." He will continue to be outspoken on the progress toward black majority rule in South Africa.

"One of the reasons I didn't reveal my condition was because I thought it might hinder travel; visa applications ask whether you have an infectious disease," he said. "When I went to South Africa in November, I lied."

For Ashe the civil rights leader, the violence in Los Angeles prove that progress for blacks in America is often one step forward, two steps back. He said he feels an urgency in his work to provide more opportunities for blacks in tennis and other professions.

"I read an interesting article theorizing that the top fifth of America is quietly seceding from the nation," he said. "Every once in a while, they do their pro bono or charity thing; the rest of the time they build walls around their houses.

"I have some opportunities to do some good."

Ashe recalled the time he roomed with tennis player Charles Pasarell, who came from a more affluent background, and rued the lack of interaction among players today.

"One thing sports can do is some mild engineering," Ashe said. "Sports can help people live together, but it has to go beyond the perfunctory handshake after the game."

He wants to help in the battle against AIDS, a disease he didn't understand even when he was already infected, unbeknown to him.

"In five short months, Magic Johnson has gone a long way toward dispelling the stigma of AIDS, hugging his friends, playing basketball," Ashe said. "I'll never forget watching Rock Hudson during a press conference in 1985. He actually kissed Doris Day right on the mouth, and Doris didn't flinch. At the time I thought, 'Oh my goodness, what is she doing?' "

Ashe suffers from some of the early symptoms of AIDS.

"Today's a good day," he said. "A bad day is like three hours of diarrhea."

He said he has gone beyond what the doctors have prescribed, engaging in vitamin therapy and some alternative treatments, but "no exotics."

"Initiative and willpower help," he said. "As an athlete, I know that."

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