Ashe spoke out, yet we were not offended He made his stands, but not his enemies

February 08, 1993|By Alan Greenberg | Alan Greenberg,The Hartford Courant

Unique is one of the most misused and overused words in the English language, but this is what was unique about Arthur Ashe: Although he harbored and expressed strong opinions on some of the vital issues of our world, he was liked and respected by all.

Think of the other most-beloved public figures you know. Where did they stand on the AIDS issue, on the plight of Haitian refugees, on apartheid in South Africa? Usually, they stood quietly on the sideline, careful not to express a strong opinion for fear of offending part of their vast constituency. Easier to play Pollyanna, to smile and tread lightly, than to be a force for change. Why get people ticked off?

The only thing that ticked off Arthur Ashe was injustice. He was such a mild-mannered man, but he went around the country telling college students they should have at least one cause for which they were willing to be arrested.

Yet no one would have dreamed of calling Ashe a rabble-rouser. He was a conscience-raiser. Although his moral compass was unwavering, Ashe was willing to compromise for the greater good. What he wouldn't compromise was himself.

Once, at the U.S. Open, a linesman's bad call resulted in Ashe winning a crucial point against Australian John Newcombe. Rather than be glad for his good fortune and play on, as most players would have, Ashe insisted the decision be reversed. It was, Newcombe winning the point, and soon, the match. But Ashe won something bigger.

Ashe's agenda, although he never would have articulated it in such such a self-righteous way, was to do what was morally right. His name, fame and information-soaked brain gave him the leverage and knowledge to get preachy, but he never did. Though he usually knew more than you, he rarely scorned a different point of view. And if you made your case well, he was quick to award you the point, and the match.

That's not the way it is with some movers and shakers. Even if their cause is noble, their hidden personal agenda, fueled by ego, may not be.

It says a lot about Ashe's approach that, despite his nonstop campaigning for AIDS awareness in the final months of his life, often he said he was pained by the stridency of some movement leaders who seemed singularly intent on pressing the concerns of gays. To Ashe, who said he believed he contracted AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion in a 1983 heart operation, you work for the greatest good, not your own good.

If Ashe had not come to this realization as a black child growing up in segregated Richmond, Va., practicality might have forced it upon him. During his playing career in the 1960s and '70s, there was no minority smaller than black tennis stars.

The pressure might have broken a lesser man. Instead, Ashe became the first black to win the U.S. Open, the first to win Wimbledon. He founded the players' union and served as president five years. He played Davis Cup 10 years, and when his first heart attack forced his retirement in 1980, he became captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team.

AThe one thing Arthur Ashe would never forfeit was his dignity. He did not learn he had the AIDS virus until September 1988, when he entered a New York hospital for emergency brain surgery. He did not wish his condition to be made public because of the harm he feared it might do his and his family's desire to lead an "unfettered" life. But when told USA Today intended to print an article revealing his secret, Ashe went public with his story last April rather than engage in lies or deceit -- or begging the newspaper to kill the story.

Because of his half a dozen or so other endeavors -- author, charity fund-raiser, TV commentator, motivational speaker, political protestor, husband and father -- and his grim prognosis, TTC you would have excused Ashe for withdrawing to the comforts of his family and chucking all the rest. Instead, he practically turned himself into a one-man AIDS campaign, crisscrossing the country, sprinting ahead of his own setting sun.

When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years from a South African prison, the first American he wanted to meet was Arthur Ashe. When the utterly selfish tennis professionals finally banded together to do something for AIDS, they did it because of Arthur Ashe.

The last time I spoke to Arthur Ashe was Nov. 30. He had come to Cambridge, Mass., to accept the first Harvard AIDS Institute award. He had just been named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year, the first athlete ever to be so recognized after his retirement.

Despite his condition, his schedule was full, his passions high. He was in good spirits, and he lifted mine. That was one of the amazing things about Arthur Ashe. You'd go in to see him wondering how you could lift his spirits, and he wound up lifting yours.

He said he hoped to live 10 more years, to see his 6-year-old daughter, Camera, grow up. He lived 10 more weeks. He died Saturday afternoon in a New York hospital. He was 49.

Arthur Ashe did what was virtually impossible. As great a tennis player as he was, he was an even greater human being. Tennis will remember Jimmy Connors. The world will remember Arthur Ashe.

With a tear.

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