Once wrote a short story about a college...

IRWIN SHAW

February 15, 1993|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

IRWIN SHAW once wrote a short story about a college athlete whose life was downhill ever after. Nothing he achieved as an adult was as satisfying as the time he ran 80 yards for a touchdown.

A. E. Housman once wrote a poem about an athlete dying young. "Now you will now swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out/Runners whom renown outran/And the name died before the man."

This notion of the sadness of a life that begins with athletic greatness occurred to me last week during the tributes to Arthur Ashe. The reverse of what Shaw and Housman were writing about occurred. Ashe's successes after his athletic career were hailed so extravagantly that his greatness as a tennis player was downplayed, almost demeaned.

He deserves praise for his fights on behalf the Heart Association after his own heart attack. For speaking out against racism's suffocating embrace of others long after he himself had escaped its grip. For teaching Americans more about AIDS, the disease that killed him.

He might have done all those things if he had been only Arthur Ashe journalist or Arthur Ashe businessman, or Arthur Ashe public-spirited lawyer, or Professor Arthur Ashe or Dr. Arthur Ashe. But I doubt it. Without the celebrity his athletic greatness earned him, he probably would not have been as effective in his non-athletic endeavors.

Winning celebrity as an athlete is no guarantee that one will be successful in other endeavors. For many, perhaps most professional athletes, there is never a later accomplishment to match that 80-yard run. The name does die long before the man. Ashe was different.

Still, I would like to have seen more obituary reflection on his tennis. He was not only an outstanding player, a crowd pleaser, fun to watch, he was also one of the few modern American tennis champions who played the game the way it is supposed to be played -- as a gentleman. Think of Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe. In their old age they became mellow, mature and displayed relatively good sportsmanship, but they were disgusting brats in their prime.

Arthur Ashe was the perfect sportsman from the start.

The irony of that is almost painful. He was the public playground black kid showing the white country club set how their favorite sport is supposed to be played.

There is another irony, worse than painful. He was probably the best known AIDS victim in the world. Two days before he died, the National Research Council reported that AIDS was and will remain principally a disease of those who for whatever reason engage in behavior that a disciplined person would avoid. Ashe got AIDS from a blood transfusion. He was the most disciplined person one can imagine.

But at any rate, the way to remember Arthur Ashe is not with a red ribbon on his lapel or picketing the South African embassy, but with a tennis racket in his hand, standing at the net, hitting winners.

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