The Tennis Channel recently aired a tribute to Arthur Ashe, one of my heroes and a truly remarkable athlete and human being. It reminded me not only of the man himself and the trials and tribulations he faced with exceptional courage and dignity throughout his life and especially toward the end when he was diagnosed with AIDS. He had contracted the virus during the second of his two bypass surgeries. One wondered how this athlete in top condition and thin as a rail could have a heart condition, but knowing that the hospital where he had the surgery introduced the AIDS virus into the man’s blood during one of the transfusions was even more difficult to imagine.
He had to deal with the looks and snickers that all black men had to face growing up in the South while playing what many regarded an effete sport at posh country clubs; but what he faced during those final years was even more demanding and showed more than anything else what character means and how little we see of it these days. How much we miss not only Arthur Ashe but people like Arthur Ashe: people of character and people who have dedicated their lives not only to their craft but to making the world a better place.
Ashe was the man to build bridges — not walls — between folks who differed in skin color and their basic beliefs about what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. He attacked such evils as apartheid in South Africa the same way he attacked a short ball on the tennis court. He once refused to play a tournament in South Africa if blacks were not only allowed to attend, but allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. You may recall that at the time blacks in Johannesburg were allowed in town during the day but were forced to leave at day’s end and not be found in town at night. As bad as racism is today, and it is still bad, it was even worse when Ashe fought against it. But if it is even a bit better today, it is because of the efforts of people like Arthur Ashe — and his friend Nelson Mandela.
We hear talk about “heroes” these days — I even heard it bandied about recently while watching one of my favorite situation comedies featuring a man who sought to be a hero to his kids by showing his willingness to sacrifice his favorite sports package on television to help his family pay some bills. We struggle to understand what the word means because we find it so difficult these days to find examples we can hold up to our children. We wonder if those who fight for their country or who play games for large amounts of money could possibly be the ones, but we don’t stop to ask ourselves just what heroism involves.
It is sad that we need to search high and low these days to try to find a person of one gender or the other, of one color or another, of one religious belief or another, who is deserving of the label “hero.” The word denotes a person who is dedicated to making the world a better place in whatever way he or she can, knowing that responsibilities come before rights, the common good before the demands of the individual. It doesn’t mean simply standing up for what one believes unless what one believes really matters. It does not demand a grand show or widespread applause; it only demands that a person be willing to do the right thing no matter how difficult that may prove to be. The remarkable thing about Arthur Ashe is that he was that man and his life stood as a tribute to the fact that it is possible to live in this crazy world and be true to oneself and true to those things that really matter.
In the end I applaud the Tennis Channel for broadcasting a tribute to the man who won over so many hearts and who walked among us always concerned that he do the right thing and who knew that his successes on the tennis courts (which were many) were so much less important than reaching out to people who were determined to war against one another in one way or another; who know only how to fling mud at others — or, worse yet, fire guns in their direction.