Ashe documentary, like the man himself, is a gem

ON THE AIR

September 27, 1994|By MILTON KENT

In its recent survey of the 40 most important sports figures of the past 40 years, Sports Illustrated placed Arthur Ashe 27th, while leaving off such luminaries as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Red Auerbach.

The truth, confirmed by a spectacular documentary "Arthur Ashe: Citizen of the World," that debuts tonight at 10 on HBO, is that Ashe, one of the more important figures in all of American society over the past four decades, should have been ranked far higher.

For virtually all who came in contact with him, Ashe -- who died Feb. 6, 1993, of complications related to the AIDS virus, which he contracted during a 1983 blood transfusion -- personified intelligence, style, dignity and grace, on the court and off.

But for all his outward civility and humility, Ashe was a man of deep conviction and passion. The 60-minute film, lovingly directed and produced by Julie Anderson, formerly of ABC and ESPN, chronicles in exquisite detail his fights against apartheid and for the rights of Haitian refugees, as well as his quiet struggles to raise the stature of blacks in American society.

Anderson's direction is complemented by a stirring script from writer Frank Deford, who accompanied Ashe on one of his South African journeys and contributed some Super 8 movies of the trip for the film, which was green-lighted as HBO executives, for whom Ashe worked as a Wimbledon analyst, rode to his funeral in Richmond, Va.

Very little time in "Citizen of the World" is devoted to Ashe's significant tennis accomplishments, which include winning the U.S. Open in 1968, and his upset of Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final.

Instead, Anderson, Deford and narrator Ossie Davis zero in on the life of a peaceful warrior, through the words of his family and friends.

A personal note: A year before his death and two months before his illness was revealed, I had the great pleasure to meet Ashe at a seminar in College Park. We briefly debated the merits of Proposition 48 and he handed me his phone number and fax number, with an invitation to call and continue the debate. I never took him up on the offer, and I've regretted it since.

If you don't have HBO, find someone who does and implore them to tape this life-affirming film, which repeats on Sept. 29, Oct. 1, 4, 9, 14 and 19. Television truly doesn't get much better than this.

Covering the firing

The announcement of Orioles manager Johnny Oates' firing, which came just after 7:30 p.m., sent local sportscasters and talkmeisters into hyperdrive.

Josh Lewin of WBAL, the Orioles' radio rights holder, broke the news at 7:33, and snagged a fairly decent interview with team general manager Roland Hemond.

Fifteen minutes later, WWLG's Nestor Aparicio got a tip from a listener, confirmed the story, then attempted unsuccessfully to reach Oates at his Colonial Heights, Va., home, but didn't attempt to get player or management reaction.

Two hours after Lewin and Aparicio signed off, WCBM's Stan "The Fan" Charles floated theories, fielded listener calls and sounded a self-congratulatory tone for trumpeting for Oates' departure in the summer of 1993, but reached Hemond around 11:20 p.m.

On the television side, channels 45, 11 and 2 led their late newscasts with the report, while Channel 13, hamstrung with "Monday Night Football," had John Buren give a quick halftime report.

Channel 45, with an hour to play with at 10 p.m., spent nearly 10 minutes in two separate reports, hitting the story from a series of angles. Steve Davis, the station's new sports anchor, frankly looked lost, and should have yielded to weekend anchor Bruce Cunningham.

Channel 11 news anchor Carol Costello said she spoke with Gloria Oates, the former manager's wife, who declined to comment, and sports anchor Gerry Sandusky provided solid perspective.

But Channel 2 was the clear winner. Scott Garceau, who broadcast Orioles games when the station had the rights, used his connections to get Oates, who did not comment publicly, on the phone.

Garceau also spoke to former Oriole Rick Dempsey, who told him that the Orioles have asked the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Dempsey works as manager of their Triple-A affiliate, for permission to talk. Weekend anchor Keith Mills spoke with pitcher Mark Williamson, the only player reaction obtained from any station.

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