Ashe fighting against a new prejudice Ex-pro battles AIDS, ignorance of disease

August 30, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The Blue Room. City Hall. The place is cluttered with portraits of mayors, antique desks, wing-back chairs and television minicams propped on a platform.

You enter expecting to see politicians and reporters engaged in the day-to-day give-and-take of a city that doesn't close for summer.

Instead, you find Arthur Ashe, walking slowly, bringing class into the room with every step, following the lead of David Dinkins.

The ailing tennis legend in a blue-and-white warm-up and the beleaguered mayor in the double-breasted white suit have come to announce a charity event, the first stop in a 15-month world tour to raise money to battle AIDS.

The mayor says all the right things about Ashe, "a role model for so many," and AIDS, "an epidemic that is devastating our cities, and shredding the fabric of our communities."

And then Ashe, sitting impassively in an overstuffed brown leather chair, rises and reaches for the podium. His voice is a rasp, and yes, he appears thin and frail, but even when he was winning Grand Slam tournaments, you would always find yourself wondering how this skinny man in tennis shorts could hit all these ferocious serves.

Everyone is straining to hear Ashe now. He talks of Magic Johnson grabbing hold of the Olympics with a smile and Mary Fisher shaking the Republicans with her speech, of prejudices yet to be overcome. And he talks of his love for his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy, and his 5-year-old daughter, Camera.

And he tells a New York story. He is sitting in his Volvo on the corner of 92nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. He hears a tap on the window, and sees this frightened man waving his arms.

The man has AIDS. So does Ashe.

The man is upset. His family has turned against him. They won't let him in his house. Won't let him visit his daughter.

And as he consoles this stranger, Ashe begins comparing one man's life with his own.

"I haven't had my family do that," he says. "No one in my apartment building has done that. No one in my daughter's school has done that. Instead, people come up to me and ask, 'What can I do to help you?' "

Now, five months after reluctantly telling the world he has AIDS, six weeks after celebrating his 49th birthday, Ashe is prepared to give an answer.

This is his message.

When you have AIDS, when the blood tests come twice a month, when DDI and AZT are drugs of necessity, when you turn on the television set and hear the former surgeon general of the United States, C. Everett Koop, say that for people infected with AIDS, ++ the prospects are "they are going to die," well, you learn to choose your battles carefully, expend your time wisely.

"You learn to live with a terminal illness," he said. "I've come to my own accommodation with it. It governs your life."

In April, Ashe was dragged from the comfortable shadows of retirement as a tennis legend, forced under threat of an impending deadline at USA Today to disclose he had been harboring a secret for 3 1/2 years -- that he was infected with AIDS.

For two weeks after his dramatic, tearful announcement, he railed privately against the unwanted squall of publicity that buffeted his life.

Now, he stands and educates.

Once he battled Jim Crow racism with nothing more than his tennis racket and his heart, emerging as the first black men's champion of a country-club game.

To struggle against AIDS, though, he must rely on doctors and nurses and hospitals. But to fight the prejudice associated with the disease, he has chosen to speak out and to be seen.

"People with AIDS lose their friends, their homes, their families, their insurance, their jobs," he said. "It's irrational and medically, indefensible."

Time is the constant enemy.

"There is a strong sense of finality to it," he said. "In all likelihood, time is short, barring some breakthrough vaccine. That makes it more difficult, what you are going to do with your waking hours. Will I feel like playing golf, or maybe I should take Camera to the park."

Now, he wants money. Five million dollars to fund the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

And his friends in tennis will help him realize a dream. Today, they'll stage an exhibition at the National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open. The great players will be there. McEnroe. Agassi. Graf. Navratilova. Ten dollars admission and proceeds to the foundation. CBS-TV to televise the show nationally.

There is more to come. The 356 players at this year's Open have been asked to wear a small emblem -- a red ribbon over a tennis ball -- as a sign of solidarity with AIDS patients everywhere. Booths will be set up at every stop on the men's and women's tours in the next year, to take donations and distribute literature on AIDS. Even the Grand Slam events have promised to participate.

In a sport of millionaires, ruled by agents, this is nothing short of a miracle.

You see, the story of tennis in 1992 is not about Andre Agassi's clothes or Monica Seles' grunts, it's about Ashe and his reluctant crusade.

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