In 1973, after years of trying, Arthur Ashe wrangled an invitation to play in the South African Open tennis tournament. He wanted to see for himself how the world might help press South Africa to ease its system of racial oppression, its apartheid. In Johannesburg he met a poet and journalist, a black man named Don Mattera. The South African watched when Ashe was confronted by young blacks who hissed that he was an Uncle Tom and told him that his visit only served to legitimize the racist white-minority government, which should be boycotted, made a pariah, until it abandoned apartheid. Mattera heard Ashe defend the use of sporting contacts to chip away at injustice. Allowing one black man to compete in the tournament had been a concession by the government, and, Ashe argued, "small concessions incline toward larger ones."
Mattera listened when Ashe cited Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass on how, since power surrenders nothing without a struggle, progress can come only in unsatisfactorily small chunks, and even the tiniest crumb must be better than nothing at all. The South African blacks shouted that Ashe didn't grasp the nature of the police state that bore down on them, that in South Africa his Reverend King would have been thrown into Robben Island prison with their Nelson Mandela. In the face of their seething anger, Ashe had the saintly temerity to warn that if they hoped to exert consistent moral pressure, their emotions were best kept controlled.
No minds were changed. Ashe, depressed by the prospect of standing helplessly on the outside while South African blacks suffered, asked Mattera if he, too, felt Ashe shouldn't have come. Mattera answered carefully, saying it was good to know that people in the rest of the world were concerned, but Ashe needed to understand the full extent of Soweto's misery.
A few days later the South African Bureau of State Security banned Mattera, meaning that he was declared invisible and inaudible. He could no longer publish, travel, enter a library or even speak with more than two people at a time. Imprisonment, he knew, might follow. After a final word with Ashe, Mattera went back to his tiny house, put his six children to bed, lighted a candle and wrote:
December 21, 1992
I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of
Your youthful face,
Hiding a pining, anguished spirit,
And I loved you brother—
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,
Trained to be rebuked or
Mattera's words are an uncanny blueprint of Ashe, a man constructed to hold fast to reason however impassioned his world. Ashe was indeed trained, first by his father and then by a stern coach, to allow rebuke to slide by his ears as if it were birdsong. In the spring of 1955, when he was almost 12, he was turned away from the Richmond city tennis tournament because of his color. By then Ashe's face was a mask, one of wonderful bespectacled mildness. His politesse grew so unbreachable that it ended up as an unnerving weapon against bratty and temper-tossed opponents.
And Ashe was trained, by church and family, to be summoned. He was made a vessel for the tradition—"the Colored catechism," he calls it—that holds that every time is a time of need and that those to whom much has been given will be called to share and ameliorate.
Ashe used his extraordinary reflexes and his backhand to become a tennis prodigy and win a scholarship to UCLA. He used the scholarship to lift his game and take a business degree. He used the game, after adding a big serve, to win the U.S. Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and Wimbledon in 1975 and to become a founding father of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the players' union. He used the business degree, along with the advice of his friend and attorney, Donald Dell, to nurture his winnings into financial independence. And he has used that independence to accept a series of summonses from causes close to his heart, one being that heart itself. In 1979, at age 36, he suffered a myocardial infarction, which forced him to have bypass surgery and retire from tennis. Within a year Ashe was serving as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.
He has raised millions of dollars for a disparate group of organizations but swears that he has never undertaken pro bono work in the manner of a compulsive do-gooder. Each call simply struck him so personally that he couldn't refuse it. College meant the world to him, so there is the United Negro College Fund. He is an athlete, so he established the Safe Passage Foundation. It comprises the ABC Tennis Program, which operates tennis centers in four inner cities, and the Athlete-Career Connection, an organization committed to improving the graduation rates of minority athletes. He also started the African American Athletic Association, which will soon begin counseling New York City high school athletes. As a black citizen of the world, he joined TransAfrica, a think tank that focuses on U.S. foreign policy as it affects Africa and the Caribbean.
He was the first eminent black male tennis player, and part of the catechism he learned says, Thou shall not close a door behind you. So when Ashe, a voracious reader and self-described "information freak," discovered that African-Americans were cut off from their own sporting history because it had never been comprehensively documented, he took five years to produce the three volumes of A Hard Road to Glory (1988). He won an Emmy for cowriting the television adaptation. Somehow he has found the time to serve as an instruction editor to Tennis magazine, write sports columns for The Washington Post and do tennis commentary for HBO and ABC Sports.
Through it all he kept one eye, one pining eye, on South Africa. And when he read that more than a hundred unarmed schoolchildren had been shot dead by the police in the Soweto student riots that began on June 16, 1976, the realist in Ashe at last acknowledged that South Africa was different. "South Africa," he says, "was testing the credibility of Western civilization. If you didn't come out against the most corrupt system imaginable, you couldn't look yourself in the eye." Then, in 1983, Ashe and Harry Belafonte cochaired Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, and Ashe did his damnedest to encourage the embargo of all sporting contact with South Africa.
Pinched by these and other sanctions, South African President Frederik de Klerk finally began to enact changes, dropping the racist pass laws, integrating parks and beaches and stadiums, holding talks with the African National Congress and releasing Mandela. When Mandela, 27 years a political prisoner, emerged and was asked whom in the U.S. he wished to have visit, he said, How about Arthur Ashe?
Ashe always embodied good sportsmanship on the playing field. But if sportsmanship is also an athlete's ability to shift from being a selfish competitor to being a useful member of society, then Ashe's sportsmanship is unequaled. His gradual harvest has grown into a mountain of good.
If sportsmanship is also the ability to transform loss into fresh, competitive, creative fire, then Ashe's has been unparalleled, and his greatest transformation is his newest. For, last April, with his stunning knack for staying topical, he revealed that he suffers from the scourge of our age. He has AIDS, having almost certainly contracted the virus that causes it from a blood transfusion after a second bypass operation, in 1983.
Ashe was angry at being forced to tell the public that he has the disease before he was ready, before his daughter was old enough to understand fully. The mask cracked, and he fought back tears when making his statement to the press. But then he controlled his emotion and used its force to create the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which in three months raised about $500,000 toward its goal of $5 million by the end of 1993. After Ashe and the U.S. Tennis Association staged a day of exhibitions for his foundation the day before the U.S. Open, John McEnroe said it was the first time he could remember the top players working together on anything.
So we celebrate Arthur Ashe as our Sportsman of the Year, not because he is a good victim but because of his good works and because of the redefining constancy with which he has pursued them. We rejoice in his battered-from-both-sides balance, his scholarly civility and his sense, even now, especially now, of perspective.
Guided by that, if you don't mind, let us skip the black-tie dinner. Ashe goes to hundreds of those in his fund-raising, consciousness-raising labors. No, it seems far more considerate to drop by his New York City apartment, sip a cup of tea and ask him to reexamine, in the light of that deceptively tranquil gaze, the experiences that have formed such a benefactor.
Arthur Ashe Jr. has family. He can trace his lineage back 10 generations on his father's side, to a woman who in 1735 was brought from West Africa to Yorktown, Va., by the slave ship Doddington and who was traded for tobacco. His father's line also reaches back to a man owned by Samuel Ashe, an early governor of North Carolina. The family has reunions that draw 300 relatives. The family crest is a broken chain amid clusters of tobacco leaves.
Ashe, 49, is the elder son of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham of Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy. Mattie passed to her son her fineness of feature, taught him to read by the time he was four and died when he was six from complications related to a toxemic pregnancy. Her last words to her husband were, "If anything should happen to me, Arthur, the boys are yours. I didn't born the children for your mother, and I didn't born them for mine. I born the children for you."
So Arthur Sr. raised Arthur Jr. and his brother, Johnnie, five years younger, to be helpful and to behave. Arthur Sr. was a special policeman in Richmond's recreation department, a disciplinarian but also an energetic handyman and outdoorsman. Arthur Jr., obedient, shy and observant, went with his father when he delivered old clothes, food and wood to poor families. "He fixed things for people," says Ashe. "He was great with his hands, with tools."
Every Sunday, Arthur Jr. had to go to church, either to First Presbyterian or Westwood Baptist, where his parents had met and where he would look up at a picture of Christ with blond hair and blue eyes and wonder if God was on his side. Matters of church and salvation were insubstantial compared with the blunt axioms put forward by his father about how to live life. "You don't get nowhere by making enemies," said Arthur Sr. "You gain by helping others." Thus he ingrained in his son the survival ethic of a community that had looked after its own for generations.
"Drummed into me above all, by my dad, by the whole family, was that without your good name, you would be nothing," says Ashe. "When some old black lady, maybe your grandmother or maybe a dignified domestic on her way home from cleaning the white people's houses, saw you or any other black boy doing something wrong, there was one expression she would use that you did not want to hear. It meant you were letting everybody down—your friends, your family, your history. And that expression was, 'Boy, you should be ashamed of yourself.' Lord, the weight those words carried."
Ashe had little occasion to be guilt-stricken. "My father never let me get a job like delivering papers," he recalls. "He kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school"—Arthur Sr. had timed the walk—"and I kept to that rule through high school."
The Ashes lived in a house on the grounds of the Brookfield Playground, then Richmond's largest blacks-only playground. A few steps from the door were four hard-surface tennis courts. Arthur Jr., so spindly that he seemed to be swung by his borrowed racket as much as he swung it, haunted those courts, which made him a little odd, because black children had no habit of tennis. They loved football, which Arthur's father forbade him to play because of his frailty.
He was taught some basic strokes by a young player named, magnificently, Ron Charity. What Arthur received from his father wasn't quite encouragement. Call it surveillance. Once, having thrown his racket in frustration, Arthur heard the screen door slam and looked up to see his father bearing down on him. He has yet to throw his second racket.
Ashe never chafed under his father's rules or under those of his coach, Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., of Lynchburg, Va., who took him in during summers after Arthur was 10, adding him to a stable of young black players. Johnson insisted that in tournaments his boys play any shot that was an inch or two outside the line as if it were in. Johnson shaped much more than Ashe's game.
"We were taught table manners and the strictest etiquette and that unshakable Oriental calm." says Ashe. "But I also noticed that control was damned effective. Other players' fathers were always telling Dr. Johnson, 'My son was going to pieces. Your player never changed expression.' Everybody stressed sportsmanship in the black tennis community, because the community was a creature of the black middle class. Doctors, teachers, morticians—image meant something to them. I envied players who could sling a racket and get away with it."
His shots were uninhibited, but the furthest he ever went toward releasing his emotions was to slug a ball into the cheap seats during a tournament in Denver in the early '70s. "I burst out in laughter," Ashe says. "Embarrassed, disbelieving laughter. You know it's not natural to contain all those reactions."
The thought evokes the description of Ashe's play by Clark Graebner, his Davis Cup teammate in the '60s, in John McPhee's 1969 book, Levels of the Game: "I've never been a flashy stylist, like Arthur. I'm a fundamentalist.... I'm interested in business, in the market, in children's clothes. It affects the way you play the game. He's not a steady player.... His mind wanders.... He plays the game with the lackadaisical, haphazard mannerisms of a liberal. He's an underprivileged type who worked his way up. His family are fine people. He's an average Negro from Richmond, Virginia. There's something about him that is swashbuckling, loose.... He comes out on the court and he's tight for a while, then he hits a few good shots and he feels the power to surge ahead. He gets looser and more liberal with the shots he tries, and pretty soon he is hitting shots everywhere. He does not play percentage tennis. Nobody in his right mind, really, would try those little dink shots he tries as often as he does.... He hits the ball so hard that it's an outright winner or he misses the shot. When he misses, he just shrugs his shoulders.... I think he works too hard at trying to keep his cool.... It's not human to be that cool. He is penned in. Feelings need an outlet. I hope he is not going to lose his cool by trying to keep his cool."
Although Ashe had a family history of heart disease—Arthur Sr., who died of a stroke in 1989, had a heart attack in the '70s—it was exceedingly unusual for a highly conditioned, six-foot, 150-pound professional athlete to have a heart attack at 36. So he has often been asked whether the feelings he penned up over the years might not have congealed into occluding deposits in his coronary arteries. Might his control, his defining grace, have come at the cost of his health?
"It's possible that containing emotions contributed to heart problems," he says. "But I'm certainly not blaming my coach, who insisted we behave." No, Ashe's control was so practical, so right for him, that one suspects he would have come to it himself. Or, without it, come to nothing.
He's sitting with his back to his rattan desk and a view of Manhattan's skyline. On two walls, books mount to the ceiling. "When I researched Hard Road," says Ashe, "I wondered, given the richness of our heritage, why no Ph.D. type had written it. Then I realized that the study of the sociology and history of black sports wasn't thought to be career advancing. The academic glamour, the appeal, was in civil rights. But man, was there power in sports."
Ashe becomes animated when he gets going on the way the first black champions galvanized their people. "The Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight in 1910 was the most-awaited event in black American history," he says happily, enjoying your surprise. "Yes. It took months for word of the Emancipation Proclamation to circulate through the land, but 80 percent of black America knew of that fight, knew why Jim Jeffries unretired from his alfalfa farm—so he could be the Great White Hope. No other event had such immediacy for black Americans. Maybe Joe Louis's second fight against Max Schmeling. Or Smith's and Carlos's black-power gesture at the 1968 Olympics. Or that time with eight seconds left in the 1982 NCAA basketball championship game between Georgetown and North Carolina, when big John Thompson, the Georgetown coach, saw his sophomore guard—what was his name? Fred Brown?—mistake an opposing player for a teammate and throw him the ball. That lost the final for Georgetown, and Thompson walked out on the court and...put his arms around Fred Brown and held him. I don't know what that did to the rest of our populace, but I was on cloud nine."
Here is Ashe, in motion. Fresh from an Aetna Life and Casualty Company board meeting in Hartford, he arrives early for his noon keynote address to a symposium in Manhattan on young African-American males, sponsored by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers and the Association of Black Foundation Executives. About 50 executives from numerous funds and foundations are listening to a panel of teenage kids, who are speaking in maxims too glib for Ashe's taste: The key to communication is observing.... We have to agree to disagree.... The easy way is to take a gun; the hard way is to fit into society. On cheating in school, one youth says, "Hey, that's this society. You have to create a separate society, between student and teacher, and agree not to cheat in that."
"It's called 'getting over,' " whispers Ashe, unmoved. "It's O.K. to cheat to get what you think you deserve."
He carries a large spiral notebook, and he prints in it often. You see topics and great chains of subheads, and space left to fill in supporting facts. A second panel, of youth-program directors, has taken over from the kids. There are questions from the grant makers about how to design counseling and job programs attractive enough to woo the young from drug dealing, and about whether some kids are damaged beyond all reach.
Ashe raises his hand. "I haven't heard anyone speak of national service," he says, "of taking a group of young men to an Army base and straightening them out." Panelists jump all over him for proposing to remove kids from their communities and for suggesting such authoritarian discipline. "I see it more as a need for job training," Ashe says, "and the need to guarantee a job, so young men can connect their work with a reward."
You feel a little chill for him; his life is running out like sand while he sits in meetings such as this. However, during a break for a box lunch, he assures you that he is such a policy wonk that he feels well occupied. "I've put in quite a bit of time in the last decade trying to be a catalyst in things like this," he says. "And in those 10 years the problems have all gotten worse."
While he is being introduced as the keynote speaker, he is still gulping fruit salad and a chicken sandwich. "My appetite is back," he says. "A new medicine, DDI, did that for me. Of course, one of an AIDS patient's biggest fears is that image of wasting down to nothing. What's come out is that a lot of patients are dying of malnutrition."
He's on. He places his notebook on the podium. "African-American males are disconnected, ostracized and feared," he says. "I've wrestled with that emotionally, because in my youth it was the other way around. Then, we feared them."
(Later he will say, "After the riots—I should say the revolt—in L.A. this spring, I saw Crips and Bloods interviewed on CNN, and someone called in and asked what they thought of the man, Reginald Denny, who was dragged out of his truck and beaten, and they didn't think anything at all of it. I kept saying to my wife, 'That's not us. That's not us.' What happened to the collective shame the black community used to experience? 'Yes, white society did you wrong,' my uncles would say. 'But you do not, ever, lower yourself to their level.' ")
Ashe tells the symposium that the cause is not lost, and he sketches the approaches taken by the counseling and mentoring programs he has started on the roughest playgrounds of Newark and in Richmond's schools. He says his sense of desperation is so great that he is willing to experiment with all sorts of educational reforms, which leads him to his position on the NCAA's three-year-old requirement that freshmen have SAT scores of at least 700 to receive athletic scholarships.
"What wasn't discussed when this was adopted, except in the cloakrooms, was how that number was decided," says Ashe. "They had to set a level that, quote, even black athletes could pass, unquote. That stung me. That was one of the most disturbing things I had heard in my life. I know black kids are just as bright as anyone else, and if you expect more, you'll get it. And 700 was laughable when you get 400 for signing your name, and when you consider the international competition. Can you imagine the Japanese saying 700 is good enough? Black educators were incensed at the proposal. I was incensed that they were incensed, because they said the requirement was going to cut black athletic opportunity. They should have complained that the number wasn't higher."
The shape of his speech, his catalytic work, suddenly becomes clear. He is rebuking and summoning. He is being true to his father and to Dr. Johnson. He asserts that sports are critical to saving "the most vulnerable group in American life, 13-year-old black boys. With sports they are part of a team, they connect effort and reward, they accept fair play, they deal with losing. Too many of them associate losing with failure and embarrassment, and embarrassment in front of their peers is what leads young African-American men to get out their knives."
"There's never any unanimity in those meetings," says Ashe with no apparent dismay. He is back in his study, fresh from having seen Malcolm X.
"Malcolm was, to me, a little frightening before he went to Mecca, even though you knew he meant to add backbone and a rationale for collective self-defense," says Ashe. "I gave no thought in those days to becoming a Muslim. I was never recruited. But I saw how it galvanized others. I don't think Cassius Clay would have refused induction into the Army in 1967. But Muhammad Ali did. I wonder what Malcolm would think today? I never met him or Dr. King. I got a letter from King once. I remember that my friends and I figured, sooner or later, they'd be assassinated: JFK, Malcolm, Martin, Bobby." And Arthur, mild and brave.
"I'm getting my life in order, so if something should happen, now or five years from now, it won't cause disruption," he says. "I'm always juggling time spent on family, work and pro bono activities. I'm always torn. Just one more minute with my child. But the AIDS issue shoved itself to the top of the list, and it's not unrelated to what I was concerned with before. The pathologies of the inner city also generate AIDS cases."
Ashe looks hale, eats like a horse, climbs stairs two steps at a time and has a steady blood count. Yet only he could have written this paragraph, which appeared in The Washington Post after he suffered a mild heart attack following his arrest in September during a protest in Washington, D.C.: "Did my participation in a demonstration for Haitian political refugees...precipitate this MI [myocardial infarction], and was this AIDS-related? The answer to both is no." Even so, his doctors told him to knock off the civil disobedience.
"He's all ho-hum acceptance and grace," says 1978 U.S. Open finalist Pam Shriver, who works with Ashe on ABC tennis telecasts. "You just hope, when it's your turn to face it, you can do half as well." The eternal example.
Ashe has known he had AIDS since 1988, when doctors found an abscess on his brain caused by toxoplasmosis, an infection that is often a marker for AIDS. He and his wife, Jeanne, a fine photographer, decided not to go public with his illness for the sake of their daughter, Camera, who was two at the time. Ashe told a few close friends, who kept quiet. However, after USA Today informed Ashe this spring that it was pursuing the story, he felt that to maintain his privacy, he would have to lie about his health.
"I was angry," he says. "I felt it was an unwarranted intrusion. I'm not a politician." Did he consider asking USA Today editors simply to hold the story? "No," he says quickly. "That would have been begging."
Neither would he rage. "Things don't always have rational answers," he says. "You have to ask exactly what your alternatives are. There comes a time, after the long good fight, when you put the Dylan Thomas on the shelf and go to sleep."
That lime is a way off, and the fight will be easier because Magic Johnson preceded Ashe in revealing his HIV infection. "He is so known and loved," says Ashe, "that there was a phalanx of doctors and articles explaining HIV transmission and treatments. You couldn't ask for better public education."
As a result, the stigma of having AIDS, something Ashe had assumed he would face, has not been much of an issue. Camera has not been taunted. "She's taking it well," he says. "When she feels like asking something, she does. We don't try to hide anything. About three weeks ago she said, 'Daddy, how did you get AIDS?' She hasn't asked about the future yet. We've decided to be judiciously truthful, to go into nothing that's not obvious. It makes a difference that I work at home. I'm around, sometimes for days on end. I get Camera up in the morning, and twice a week I shampoo her hair. That's Daddy's job. She's at an age when who does what is very important to her."
In Ashe's presence you find yourself adopting, gratefully, his brisk, academic tone, the offhand mask. It is only later that the fullness of some of his words strikes, so that, say, walking down Lexington Avenue and looking at department-store Christmas windows, you find that your forehead is inclined against the cool plate glass, and you are seeing Ashe's long, slender fingers moving in the beautiful child's soapy soft curls.
The next time you talk with him, you ask how he can possibly account for all the suffering of innocent people in the world. "Howard Thurman, the theologian, had a theory on that," says Ashe. "He thought that in the universal scheme of things, the innocent must suffer to pay for humanity's way through existence. The view has a lot of precedents, including human sacrifice. The souls offered up had to be untainted, so the gods would know that people were surrendering what they most valued."
Ashe chuckles when you try to imagine him as a sacrifice. "There is no definitive answer," he says. "Thurman's interpretation is just one way of talking about it."
Another is to ask after Ashe's personal faith. "No, my faith hasn't been shaken," he says. "These things just happen. Earthquakes, storms, innocent people get killed. But it does shake one's faith in the causality between good works and just rewards."
The logical question, then, is, What good are good works to him now? Why not just go canoeing with Camera? Ashe's sporting answer is that you play out your match, you pound away as hard as you can at what you care about until it's over, for the perfectly practical reason that we are not here in a vacuum. "Each of us comes up with his or her own social contracts," he says, "agreements with our group or our nation, or just ourselves. Those Crips and Bloods, those kids who showed no remorse, had no contract with America, just with raw, primeval, individual survival."
Ashe signed his contract with the whole society of man. His good is the common good. He doesn't need to create a little society so that he can agree not to cheat in it. He doesn't cheat in the big one. He delights in whatever mends and perpetuates the widest community, whether it is a student's decision to set worthy goals, a gene-splicing technique to combat HIV or a South African election open to members of all races.
There are, he insists, only two alternatives. If enough human beings do not advance the common good, we cannot go on; we shall move from suffering a chain of sustainable losses to suffering extinction. But if enough do, if enough coaches find the grace to hold the guilt-stricken athlete who just lost the title and tell him that it's just a game, that he has nothing to be ashamed of, that he can leave his knife in his pocket, then Arthur Ashe will always be on cloud nine.