Ashe tribute is as special as man

September 21, 1994|By PHIL JACKMAN

While very few could match him on the tennis court in his heyday of the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, fewer still were his equal as a human being.

In its recent 40th anniversary edition, Sports Illustrated assigned Arthur Ashe the position of No. 27 among those 40 "who sufficiently altered or elevated the world of sports" from 1954 to '94.

The number seems awfully low,considering Ashe was the model of what a player should be with his grace, dignity and style. It barely scratches the surface of what Arthur was all about.

It's why HBO's tribute to the man, which will be shown on the premium channel next Tuesday (10 p.m.), is aptly titled "Arthur Ashe, Citizen of the World."

"That's what his favorite T-shirt had inscribed on it, 'I am a Citizen of the World,' " reveals friend and longtime rival Stan Smith.

"That was Arthur's calling," adds television personality Bryant Gumbel. "He was the ambassador of what was right."

In the moving, dead-on-target style that has seen him win Emmys for his production work on "When It Was A Game," and "Little Giants," Ross Greenburg and the writer of the hour-long show, Frank Deford, do a masterful job of capturing this man.

Ashe won the first U.S. Open that was truly open (to pros as well as amateurs) and, later, Wimbledon in a classic victory over the almost unbeatable-at-the-time Jimmy Connors. But he never made a big deal of his court successes.

"What I don't want is to be thought of as a great tennis player. That is no contribution to make to society. That was for me," he used to say from the first time he suffered a serious heart attack at age 36 in 1979, through more heart problems and a brain operation that occasioned a transfusion of tainted, HIV-positive blood which led to AIDS and his death early last year.

"Now if I could discover some new vaccine for sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, that would be great and what a role model should be."

He not only spoke those words; better yet, he lived them nearly every day of his life.

What Jackie Robinson was to breaking down the color barrier in baseball, Arthur was in scaling the walls that surrounded the utterly white game of tennis.

"He symbolized a type of humanity that brought people together," one of his eulogizers said that sad day that saw a remarkable outpouring of love and respect from people from all walks of life, worldwide.

Arthur learned early that being black in this country in the 1950s, he was not completely free. And once he had done his part in helping improve the situation here, he worked tirelessly to right the wrong anywhere he saw it.

Inspiring is his participation at the South African Open two decades ago, where witnesses Deford and broadcaster Bud Collins said Ashe conducted himself with such class and dignity he shot a good-sized hole in the long-standing apartheid ways of that country.

It was during the implosion in this country in 1968 with Vietnam, political assassinations and everything else that an Olympic boycott was attempted for the Games in Mexico City. The movement's director, Dr. Harry Edwards, asked for Arthur's support and was turned down.

"Damn, Ashe is an Uncle Tom," railed the quick-to-judge Edwards when Arthur met his challenge with a Dr. Martin Luther King-like "that's not my way." Edwards later admitted that he "began to depend on Arthur's [nonviolent] way."

How influential was Ashe among his tennis colleagues from around the world? He was the leader of the famed boycott of Wimbledon in 1973, explaining simply, "We were all born with free will to pick and choose the tournaments we want to enter, and that's all we're asking for." He was right, of course, and two years later when he took the title, it was as popular a victory as has been seen in Southwest London in years.

Almost as an afterthought so impressive were the things that Ashe accomplished off the court, the man's exploits as a player are worked in: 13 straight seasons of being ranked among the top five in the world; more Davis Cup singles wins than any other American; captain of the Davis Cup squad; on and on. Remarkable for a man who wasn't welcomed into tournaments until he was a collegian (UCLA) and was always held up to the closest scrutiny.

Arthur Ashe had only about 14 years after the initial heart attack, but he wrote, researched and became deeply involved in project after project, all benefiting his fellow man. Typically, he once told a friend worried that he was working himself to death, "What do you want me to do, sit home and think about dying of AIDS?"

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