He redefined the black athlete.

Gregory P. Kane

February 12, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

In April 1967, my brother and I stood in front of a store on the corner of Edmondson and Fremont avenues in Baltimore. He gave me the news that Muhammad Ali had refused induction into the armed services.

I let out a shout of joy. Ali at that moment became my athletic hero. Oh, I'd heard of a black guy named Arthur Ashe who was making waves in the tennis world. But with his skinny frame and black-rimmed glasses, Ashe looked like the antithesis of a sports hero. He seemed a bit too Walter Mittyish for my taste. And the guy played tennis, for God's sake.

I didn't know at the time that Ali was also one of Ashe's heroes. "Ali certainly influenced me later in 1967 when the Davis Cup draw came up," Ashe told an Ali biographer, "and . . . the United States was supposed to meet South Africa in the third round . . . There's no question that Ali's sacrifice was in the forefront of my mind."

As time passed, Ashe would grow in my mind to heroic stature almost equal to Ali's. When a demonstration against South Africa's apartheid was going on, Ashe was sure to be there. His anti-apartheid efforts were so effective that it's been said that Ashe was the first person Nelson Mandela wanted to meet when he visited the United States. When a protest had to be mounted against the Bush administration's discriminatory policy against Haitians, you could count on Arthur Ashe to be there.

Ashe, more than any other African-American, redefined the role of what a black athlete should be. In an era when some black athletes had the oratorical skills of a Stepin Fetchit, Ashe was erudite and articulate. In an age when black athletes were stereotyped as physically endowed but not particularly bright, Ashe was the personification of the synthesis between brain and brawn. His 1975 victory over Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon championship was, according to writer Ralph Wiley, "won on guile as much as athletic ability. Connors was younger, quicker and hit harder than Ashe. But Ashe outthought him, refusing to play power against power. Ashe moved the ball around, gave Connors nothing to feed off . . ." If there ever was a thinking man's athletic hero, it was Arthur Ashe.

Today, all too many black athletes spend four, sometimes five years at a college or university and earn no degree. Some, like former pro football star Dexter Manley, manage to make it through college without learning to read. While there were always Dexter Manleys, Mike Tysons and Charles Barkleys around to embarrass us, it was a welcome relief to have Arthur Ashe as an antidote, a man educated enough to author a three-volume work on the history of the black athlete long after his own tennis career was over.

To illustrate the difference between Ashe and some of his African-American brethren in the sports world, consider Ashe's perspective on what happened in Reno, Nev., July 4, 1910:

"Nothing that Frederick Douglass did, nothing that Booker T. Washington did, nothing that any African-American had done up until that time had the same impact as Jack Johnson's fight against Jim Jeffries. . . . It was the most awaited event in the history of African-Americans to that date. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was not done with widespread prior knowledge. Half of black America didn't know it was going to be issued, and even after it was, many African-Americans didn't know about it for weeks.

"But virtually every black American knew that Johnson versus Jeffries was going to take place. They knew what was at stake. And when Johnson won, he completely destroyed one of the crucial pillars of white supremacy - the idea that the white man was superior in body and mind to all the darker peoples of the earth."

Imagine Mike Tyson writing the above passage. Imagine Dexter Manley reading it. Imagine any of a score of high school or college black athletes who place sports above education even comprehending it. It was such perspicacity that set Arthur Ashe above the common athlete. For that, and his humanitarianism, dignity, grace and charm, Ashe should have a warm spot in all of our hearts.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer.

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