Snapshots capture an original in Ashe

KEN ROSENTHAL

February 08, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

In New York, nearly a dozen TV cameras were arranged around a large wooden table inside a boardroom at New York Hospital. Henry Murray, Arthur Ashe's attending physician, tried to explain how an AIDS patient could die so suddenly. Donald Dell, Ashe's attorney and longtime friend, choked back tears.

In northwest Baltimore, Dick Hobson sat at his dining room table sorting through memories -- pictures, letters and tennis programs, all revolving around the man they called Ashe. Dick is 70, his wife Lavada, 69. Slowly, they ascended the staircase to show a visitor the bedroom where Ashe slept as a boy with their nephew, Ron Claxton.

This was in the late 1950s, when Ashe was a skinny teen-ager and Hobson a publicist for a tennis association formed to promote young black players. Three straight summers, Ashe spent a week with the Hobsons. It was the only way he could afford to compete in Baltimore Tennis Club-sponsored tournaments at Druid Hill Park.

The Hobsons don't have children, but they raised Claxton, who was three years younger than Ashe. At first, Claxton wasn't sure about the boy from Richmond, Va. "He just eats up everything," Claxton would tell Lavada, fearing the food would run out. Then came Saturday night, and the news that the family's longtime friend was gone.

"My nephew was so upset, he couldn't even talk," Lavada Hobson was saying yesterday. Claxton, 46, is now director of the co-op program at Clark Atlanta University. He recently had arranged for Ashe to speak at the school, giving him the choice of three dates in March.

Ashe planned his schedule in three-month increments, knowing with AIDS he might not last six. Claxton expected him to confirm by Jan. 25. When no reply came, he called the Hobsons. Lavada asked her husband the chilling question: "Do you think Ashe is sick?"

Her suspicions proved correct. Ashe had been in remarkably good health since his AIDS was diagnosed, but at Christmas he began feeling breathless. On New Year's Day, suffering from AIDS-related pneumonia, he was admitted to the hospital for the first time since 1988.

Ashe stayed two weeks, and according to Dr. Murray, "recovered very well." He begged to resume the speaking schedule that became so crowded in the 10 months since he revealed he had AIDS. He wanted to keep teaching, keep fighting. But last Tuesday, he gave his final talk.

Did he push too hard? The question surfaced almost immediately at the emotional news conference in New York, but what could anyone say? According to Dell, Ashe's greatest thrill wasn't his 1968 U.S. Open or '75 Wimbledon titles, but his speech before the U.N. General Assembly last Dec. 1.

Ashe was quiet but forceful, a man who led the fight against racial injustice, a man who wrote a three-volume history of the black athlete in America, a man who immersed himself in topics ranging from the graduation rates of minority athletes to U.S. foreign policy as it affects Africa and the Caribbean.

Yet, his studious approach wasn't always appreciated. Dell recalled a meeting of young black leaders in 1968 in the basement of Andrew Young's Atlanta home. A debate ensued over how to advance the minority cause after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

"From the back of the room, a young guy yelled up and said, 'Arthur, you've got to be a lot more outspoken, much more aggressive,' " Dell recalled. "Arthur turned to him and said, 'Jesse, I'm not arrogant. I'll never be arrogant. I'll do it my way.' "

Jesse, of course, was Jesse Jackson, and the criticism of Ashe didn't end there. Nearly 20 years later, Dick Hobson had to fight for Ashe to receive a Laurel Wreath, the highest honor given by their fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. "They wanted Arthur to have a personality he didn't have," Hobson said. "It's not that he didn't fight. But he did things in a cultured style."

On his dining room table, Hobson pointed to a photo of Ashe receiving the award in 1986. At that time, he was one of only 30 men to be so honored in the fraternity's 75-year history. In the photo, Ashe's wife, Jeanne, is pregnant with their daughter, Camera. The daughter Ashe wanted to protect by keeping his disease private. The daughter for whom he planned a party Valentine's Day.

In New York, Dell said that Jeanne Ashe, a photographer, took "tons of pictures" in the last year, wanting to capture Ashe and Camera together. In northwest Baltimore, Dick Hobson spread his memories across the dining room table. His wife, Lavada, sat near the window. She said she was tired. She had been up all night.

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