Arthur Ashe made grace a way of life

June 14, 1993|By Gene Seymour | Gene Seymour,Newsday

No matter how tear-resistant you may think you are, it will take superhuman effort to avoid a swelling in the throat when reading the last chapter of this brave and beautiful book. It is a letter Arthur Ashe wrote to his 6-year-old daughter, Camera, on Inauguration Day this year, saying, at the outset, that "by the time you read this letter . . . I may not be around to discuss with you what I have written here."

Little more than two weeks later, Ashe, the greatest African-American tennis player in history, died, at 49, of pneumonia brought about by the AIDS virus. He lasted just long enough to leave behind this final testament of a life that was full, though brief; rewarding, if exacting; painful, yet triumphant. Of all the eloquent, impassioned commentaries on this exemplary life that have flowed throughout the world since its conclusion, Ashe's own is, properly, the best by far.

The many virtues of "Days of Grace" begin with its collaborator. ++ Ashe's decision to work with Arnold Rampersad, author of the award-winning two-volume "Life of Langston Hughes," was evidence of both the tennis star's fine taste and the uncanny intuitive powers he often displayed on the court. Rampersad's unobtrusive grace as a writer and scrupulous balance as a biographer were perfectly, almost eerily in sync with Ashe's similar personality traits, making them perfect doubles partners for what had to be, given the circumstances, an especially arduous match.

Together, they have shaped what may be, among other things, the richest account of an athlete's "second life" yet published. Such status is probably inevitable given that Ashe had one of the more extraordinary post-athletic careers.

It started with a couple of heart attacks in 1979 and 1980 that forced Ashe to retire from a competitive career that yielded three Grand Slam tournament victories (including the epochal 1975 Wimbledon win over Jimmy Connors) and international renown. As with most athletes leaving their sport behind in their mid- to late 30s, Ashe was forced to figure out, in a hurry, what he could do with the rest of his life.

This process was no less painful for someone like Ashe, who was far more shrewd with his money than other sports retirees. And yet, as he writes: "I was adamant about not giving myself over exclusively to making money. If God hadn't put me on earth mainly to stroke tennis balls, he certainly hadn't put me here to be greedy."

So, in the manner of his late, beloved father, he "stayed busy," as an often successful Davis Cup coach (whose teams included such notable intransigents as Connors and John McEnroe), a diligent and compassionate corporate board member, a dogged historian of black American participation in sports and a principled activist and public spokesman for causes ranging from the elimination of apartheid in South Africa to the tightening of academic standards for black athletes.

He is honest and fair in assessing both the highs and lows of these accomplishments. He writes with pithy elegance about tennis -- probably the best prose on the game by a prominent player this side of Bill Tilden. His insights into the play and personalities of such one-time rivals as McEnroe and Ilie Nastase are precise and evocative.

At times, you feel a bit of anger on Ashe's behalf. Most of this anger coalesces around the question of why someone so unfailingly civil and gracious should be so vexed by uncivil and graceless behavior.

First and foremost, of course, was the racism he had been subjected to growing up in segregated Richmond, Va. -- and whose varied manifestations and effects he had endured

stoically throughout his life. He stunned a white interviewer a year before his death by observing that "being black is the greatest burden I've had to bear" -- greater, he said, than coping with AIDS.

It is hard enough being black in white society without having to endure, as Ashe did, the constant chiding from more militant blacks for sticking to his own restrained and thoughtful activism. During the '70s, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson accused Ashe of not being "arrogant enough" (which prompted this black reader to wonder whether Jackson, had he been less arrogant and more ruminative like Ashe, would have been elected president by now).

But of all the affronts to common decency endured by Ashe, the one that stung the most was the media's noisy and unseemly pressure on him last year to disclose his AIDS affliction, which he believed he sustained during a blood transfusion for a 1983 heart operation. The book opens with this "outing" and the ensuing debate over the right to know and the right to privacy.

Typically, Ashe gives each side of the debate its due without undue rancor or bitterness. But in the end, one can't help echoing the sentiment expressed, on a different matter, by Nora Ephron: "I don't know what constitutes an invasion of privacy, but I know one when I see one."

After a while, however, you begin to feel, with Ashe, that none of these various hurts we sustain should overshadow the necessity to carry out our collective responsibility to each other, especially to those in our immediate and extended families.

Which brings us back to the lovely letter to Camera, in which Ashe describes his family tree and that of his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe.

He urges Camera to embrace her color and her country, to "see people as human and as individuals first who have been socialized into their cultural claims," to "never look at [herself] as being above sports," to "nurture an appreciation of music and the arts," to have faith in God.

In short, to be a complete human being. Just like her daddy. We should all grow up to be just like her daddy.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Days of Grace: A Memoir"

Author: Arthur Ashe

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 304 pages, $22

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