You don't silence Arthur Ashe all that easily. Racism has tried his soul, disease has attacked his heart, and now another malady, AIDS, is assailing his body—and his dignity. But Ashe, 48, the most prominent black tennis player in history and one of the most respected athletes of our time, perseveres when battling ills, whether medical or societal.
And last week a new battle was joined when Ashe, fearing that his condition would be revealed by USA Today, reluctantly announced that he suffers from AIDS. After a televised press conference and three days of interviews, he sat in his Manhattan apartment Saturday, tired but not feeling at all sick, yet entertaining no illusions about his future. As for the question of why he has been beset by so much travail, Ashe has concluded, after much thought and study, that God heard he was a pretty good juggler, and He wants to see some juggling. "It's one of the great moral questions," said Ashe. "Why do bad things happen to good people? Because it's a matter of enduring them."
Ashe knows that the disclosure that he has AIDS will require him to confront a new kind of discrimination, just as the discovery 3½ years ago that he had the disease required that he confront a new kind of medical crisis. He thumbs daily through such writings as Susan Sontag's Illness as Metaphor, which explores society's misperceptions about diseases and the people who contract them. He turns to Albert Einstein, who, when asked what he considered to be the most important question in the world, replied. "Is the universe a friendly place?"
Ashe thinks about that a lot. Will the world be a friendly place when he steps out of his apartment building and people wonder if he's headed to New York Hospital for his monthly blood test to check the status of a disease that is most frequently transmitted by homosexuals and intravenous-drug users? Will it be a friendly place for his five-year-old daughter, Camera, a radiant child who attends an elite private school? Will it be a beautiful place for him and his erudite wife, Jeanne, the next time they dine out? Ashe is not at all certain.
April 19, 1992
"I have not yet walked into a restaurant where I might feel that they really don't want me in there," he says, "where the waiter will take precautions or where someone in the kitchen will make sure to wash my plate with a little more hot water than everyone else's."
Because of such anxieties, Ashe had chosen to keep his condition a secret from all but a few close friends. However, after USA Today had informed Ashe that it had received a tip about his condition and was considering publishing a story about it, he held his press conference on April 8 in New York City and acknowledged having the illness. Ashe stated he was "100 percent sure" that he had become infected with HIV through a blood transfusion after one of his two heart bypass operations, in 1979 or, more likely, '83. He had known of his condition since '88, when his right hand suddenly became numb and he underwent brain surgery to determine the cause. Doctors found an abscess on his brain caused by toxoplasmosis, an infection that, when found in the brain, frequently indicates the presence of HIV.
In Ashe, AIDS has gained a second well-known spokesman, but one of a different sort than the effervescent Magic Johnson, who disclosed live months ago that he had contracted HIV through sexual activity. The only black man ever to have won the U.S. Open (1968) or Wimbledon ('75), Ashe is a man of surpassing but understated eloquence. Although outraged by the invasion of his privacy, he will nonetheless take up the AIDS cause.
Ashe says his first order of business will be to "destigmatize" the disease that he terms the modern-day equivalent of leprosy. In particular, he'll try to dispel the public hysteria surrounding AIDS, a hysteria that results in discrimination that is sometimes unwitting and at other times intentional and vicious. Because of the social circles he moves in, Ashe has a rare chance to demystify AIDS in places like country clubs, boardrooms, private schools and the White House.
For Ashe, the most difficult aspect of dealing with AIDS is the misconception that it can be transmitted through everyday contact. "You can't get it from being kissed, or sneezed on, or coughed on, or hugged, from a handshake, or using the same fork, or using the same glass," Ashe says. Both Jeanne and Camera have been tested for HIV. and neither has it.
"Whether his condition should become known was discussed with him with some frequency, as to what the advantages and disadvantages were of getting it out," says Michael Giordano, a physician at New York Hospital who has treated Ashe. Arthur discussed going public most often with Jeanne. He says that they had decided he would do so "when I was convinced I didn't have too much time left, but I still functioned well enough to do a lot of good."
Ashe is nowhere near that stage. Through the use of AZT and other drugs, his blood count has remained steady since he learned he had the disease. Ashe's demeanor remains unwavering, but his friends say that no matter how composed his exterior, emotions are roiling within. "He doesn't show it, but it works on him," says Stan Smith, one of Ashe's former Davis Cup teammates. Donald Dell, his agent and another longtime friend, describes Ashe's composure as Gandhi-like. "He's coped with four or five catastrophes, when the average person might have one or two in a lifetime," says Dell.
Strength in the face of adversity has long been one of Ashe's tools in fighting racial discrimination. In 1955, when he was 12, he tried to gain admittance to an all-white tennis tournament in Richmond, though he knew he would be turned away. He is the product of the rigorous church-dominated civil rights tradition that requires exemplary personal standards. "There's no question that some of the coping and surviving mechanisms I've used all my life to deal with racism, I'll call on again to deal with medical discrimination," he says. "You make sure that your facts are right and that you haven't fallen short personally. Armed with that, you take your stand."
Education and intellectualism have been the underpinning of Ashe's social activism, whether in establishing junior tennis programs in the inner cities, working against apartheid in South Africa or writing a three-volume history of the African-American athlete. Ashe's dedication to important causes is probably why there was, as he puts it, "a generous conspiracy" among his friends in the media to keep his illness private.
Ashe's exceedingly moral view of the world is not a modern one. That helps explain why Ashe did not simply lie to USA Today when it confronted him. In an age with lots of great players but almost no great champions, when small untruths are rationalized for greater goods, why not lie? "Because you can never tell just one lie," says Ashe. "There's always another."
That answered, Ashe returns to his favorite question: Is the world a friendly place? Maybe not. But on the street, strangers wish him good luck. Elizabeth Taylor, whom he has never met, sends a glorious spray of tulips. A neighbor gives him a box of chocolates, shakes his hand and then reaches up to give him something more, a kiss.