From athletics to activism, Ashe lived a truly heroic life ARTHUR ASHE, 1943-1993 Appreciation

February 08, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Arthur Ashe was about big ideas, big dreams and big serves.

He was an author, educator, activist and commentator.

And he was a damn good tennis player. Don't forget that. Placid on the outside, he had real heat within, which drove him from the segregated South to Wimbledon on his personal hard road to glory.

When he died Saturday in New York of pneumonia, a complication of AIDS, Ashe, 49, already had become a symbol to many, not just because of the disease he had, but also because of the life he lived.

He was earnest, thoughtful, humble and, most of all, decent, words and attitudes that have become cheapened in a sports world filled with inflated salaries and egos.

He was the genuine article: an athlete as hero.

Like Jackie Robinson, Ashe was a black athlete who challenged racism with gallant stoicism. And, like the ancient Greeks, he used not just his body, but also his mind, in a perfect, harmonious blend.

In his final months, after revealing he had contracted AIDS

through a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery in 1983, Ashe became a spokesman and a symbol for yet another issue, yet another just cause.

"I think the world will miss him," said Charlie Pasarell, who first met Ashe when they were 12 years old on the junior tennis circuit.

To understand why Ashe's loss leaves a void, you have to know of his life and his times.

His is a story of legend set in a country still battling prejudice.

He grew accustomed to firsts, shattering barriers of race as a junior tennis champion, college All-American at UCLA and, finally, U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open champion.

The son of a public parks superintendent in Richmond, Va., Ashe learned tennis on segregated courts. It was Walter Johnson, a Lynchburg, Va., physician, who took Ashe under his wing, who provided him with superb coaching, but, more importantly, forced him to live by a rigid code in preparation of a life destined for greatness over strife.

Tall and thin, with black, horn-rimmed glasses dominating his face, Ashe did not define tennis grace. He was analytical, yet also impatient, but he could crack a serve as hard as anyone and punish an opponent with a clubbing forehand or a slice off the backhand.

He won the first U.S. Open in 1968, and that made him a celebrity. And then he gave tennis a day, maybe its best, and became an inspiration by winning Wimbledon in 1975.

Ashe showed the world that the miracle of sports is really about possibility. With nothing more than the power of his mind and the spins and slices off his racket, he shocked Jimmy Connors in that Wimbledon final, and streaked to No. 1 in the world.

It was the highlight of his career.

A series of heart attacks and surgeries forced him into retirement. Yet, with Ashe, there was always more to come.

He yearned to have America understand the contributions of its black athletic pioneers, so he wrote a three-volume history called "A Hard Road to Glory."

Ashe saw the world's burdens, and made them his own. His voice may have been soft, but his opinions and actions were filled with controversy.

He promoted civil rights, whether in Watts or Soweto. He struggled to develop tennis programs for America's inner-city youth. He played on a dusty court in South Africa and then fought to isolate the country because of its policy of apartheid.

Even last September, Ashe still made his stands passionate and public, taking part in a demonstration in Washington for Haitian refugees. Hours later, he was admitted to a hospital after suffering a mild heart attack.

The only public battle he would have preferred to miss was the fight against AIDS. For 4 1/2 years, through a "friendly conspiracy," bTC he hid his illness, for fear that his wife, Jeanne, and daughter, Camera, would undergo needless scrutiny.

When editors at USA Today told him they were on the verge of making his illness public, Ashe beat them to the story, calling an April 8 news conference.

He tried to read a statement and wept.

Part of America wept with him, too.

But Ashe would not, could not, remain maudlin. He brought the often-fractious world of tennis together to form a fund-raising foundation. And, on a gorgeous, sunlit afternoon last August in New York, the sport's biggest stars came out for a day of tennis.

When Ashe died Saturday, a lot of his old friends, even some of his fiercest rivals, said a lot of nice things about him.

But it was Connors, in his gruff, characteristic way, who summed Ashe best.

"He didn't take it lying down, did he?" Connors said.

No, he didn't.

A final story:

It was last August at New York's City Hall, where Ashe was sitting with a group of reporters, talking about his life, his illness, his career.

The subject of politics came up, and Ashe, very seriously, said: "I'd love to be president of the United States. I think I'd do a good job."

Ashe was gaunt and frail. He could have been resting. Maybe he should have been. Dying, Ashe still was speaking from the heart.

When the interview ended, Ashe finally asked reporters a question.

"Do you know why I'm talking to you?" he said.

No one answered.

"It's because I want people to know about AIDS," he said.

This is the measure of what Ashe meant to his country: Today, in Richmond, the city that once shunted him to a segregated tennis court, flags will fly at half-staff.

Arthur Ashe Jr. is coming home.

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