Ashe Was More Than An Athlete

By Courtesy of the Washington Times By Dave Heller
Updated: February 9, 2006

don’t want my daughter to think her daddy was just an athlete.”Arthur Ashe

When he died 13 years ago today, nobody could have thought that. As great a tennis player as he was — his 33 tournament victories included championships at the U.S Open in 1968, Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975 — Arthur Ashe’s accomplishments in other arenas dwarfed those on the court.

During this Black History Month, four African-American athletes stand as pioneers and architects of racial equality.

Jackie Robinson. Muhammad Ali. Bill Russell. And Ashe.

Following his death at age 49 from AIDS-related pneumonia, Ashe’s body lay in state in Richmond. Two years later, a 12-foot statue to him was erected in the former capital of the Confederacy, near those of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart along Monument Avenue.

This is the same Richmond where a 12-year-old Arthur was barred from playing in a city tournament in 1955 because of his skin color.

Nothing better illustrates his impact on society than these disparate events — not even the postage stamp issued in his honor or the sign reading “Arthur Ashe Stadium” in front of the courts at the U.S National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y.

Nor was his impact confined to America.

When Nelson Mandela was released by the racist South African government in 1990 after 27 years as a political prisoner, he was asked what American he would like to meet.

“How about Arthur Ashe?” replied Mandela, mindful that years earlier Ashe had agreed to play in a South African tournament only if Johannesburg’s Ellis Park was integrated first. Black fans in that otherwise segregated nation nicknamed Ashe “Sipho,” meaning in Zulu “a gift from God.”

“A handful of athletes were willing to stand up for social issues,” said Richard Lapchick, an expert on sports and society.

“The price they paid is one reason that today’s [black] athletes, including Tiger Woods, find it’s safer to be more neutral.”

Unlike Robinson, Ali and Russell, however, Ashe preferred a quieter brand of activism — doing the things he felt were right with less fanfare. In fact, contemporary tennis star Billie Jean King once jokingly said, “I’m blacker than Arthur Ashe.”

Washington lawyer Donald Dell, Ashe’s longtime friend and attorney, recalls a young man yelling, “Arthur, you’ve got to be more aggressive, more outspoken,” during a discussion about the black movement in 1968.

Ashe’s reply, according to Dell: “I’m just not arrogant, and I’m never going to be arrogant. I’m just going to do it my way.”

And so he did. The list of Ashe’s good works while wearing long pants almost defies retelling. A few: • After suffering a heart attack that forced him to quit competitive tennis in 1979 at the age of 36, he became national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.

• He established the ABC Tennis Program, which operates centers in inner cities, and the Athlete Career Connection, which attempts to improve the graduation rates of black athletes.

• He started the African American Athletic Association to counsel high school athletes in New York City.

• He joined TransAfrica, a think tank that focuses on U.S. foreign policy as it affects America and the Caribbean.

• He wrote the three-volume “A Hard Road to Glory to teach black Americans about their own sporting history. It was later adapted for TV and won an Emmy.

• He joined with singer Harry Belafonte in 1983 to co-chair Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and encouraged an embargo of all sporting contact with South Africa.

Yet like so many good people, Ashe was spectacularly unlucky when it came to his own health. In April 1992, he told a stunned public that he had contracted AIDS from an infected blood transfusion during his second heart surgery in 1983.

Typically, Ashe then began trying to use his own misfortune to help others. He created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which raised $500,000 in its first three months. Of his worsening condition, he said simply, “I’m not a victim, I’m a messenger.”

Soon after Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year for 1992, Ashe told writer Kenny Moore he had gotten his life in such order that his death “won’t cause disruption” for wife Jeanne, daughter Camera and the assorted foundations with which he was involved.

Ashe’s careful, thoughtful manner of living mirrored his style of tennis. SI’s Moore wrote of his court comportment: “He played each stroke as if it were for life and death and then instantly abstained from regret or celebration because there was another shot to play.”

Compared to such contemporary firebrands as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Ashe seemed almost phlegmatic. But instead of ranting and raving about a courtside call, he saw the bigger picture — the larger issue. What does a tennis match matter in relation to the lives of people suffering from conditions beyond their control or understanding?

Even when he knew he was dying, Ashe continued to serve. In the fall of 1992, he was arrested during a demonstration in D.C.

protesting U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians. Afterward, he said, “It does wonders for your outlook. … Marching in a protest is a liberating experience.

It’s cathartic. It’s one of the great moments you can have in your life.”

And when that life ended a few months later, millions around the world mourned.

Once, at the tender age off 22, Ashe said, “It’s my life, and a hundred years from now nobody will care about it.”

There’s a very good chance he was wrong.