A Better Place

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.

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Arthur Ashe

In the current issue of Inside Tennis there is an extraordinary interview with Arthur’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, that takes us back to the days when there were occasionally exceptional human beings who excelled on the courts and playing fields — and in their lives. Those were the days! I had the good fortune of seeing Arthur Ashe up close once in my life in Florida when I went to spend a week at Sanibel Harbour to receive a coaching award. And he used to stay with one of my closest friends when he came to River Forest, Illinois each year to play in the National Clay Court Tournament. I have always admired the man and I suppose he is the standard against which I hold current athletes who invariably fail to meet that standard. He was not only an exceptional athlete, he was an exceptional human being who cared about others and who had a strong sense of duty.

You may recall that Ashe died of AIDS soon after he received contaminated blood during a heart bypass. He was still young and much-loved and his passing was noted by people around the world. One of his close friends and one who regretted his passing was Nelson Mandela who, upon coming to New York after being freed from prison after 27 years wanted to know where Arthur “my brother” was.  Upon Arthur’s death, Mandela called him “a citizen of the world. . . an extraordinary individual who has given me and millions hope at a time when we needed it most.” Arthur had gotten to know Mandela in South Africa at a time when apartheid was at its height and Mandala and Arthur, each in his own way, were determined to bring it down. After breaking many racial barriers as a young man growing up in the Jim Crow South and a minority student at UCLA, Arthur helped break down racial barriers in South Africa as well by playing tennis there only on his terms: in a non-segregated stadium, where blacks would be invited to attend and allowed to sit wherever they wanted. Young blacks in that country, like author Mark Mathabane, said later on that Arthur Ashe was the first free black man they had ever seen.  He later asked, “How could a black man play such excellent tennis, move about the court with such confidence, trash a white man, and be cheered by white people?”  Ashe was for them, and indeed for all of us, a remarkable example. It’s too bad more contemporary athletes don’t follow the example he set.

I recall sitting around our tiny 12″ television on a hot, July day in 1975 watching Arthur beat Jimmy Connors for the Wimbledon title. At the time it was easily the most prestigious tennis title in the world and it may still be so. But Arthur, after the win, simply came to the net, shook hands with his opponent — who was one of the inventors of histrionics on the tennis court — and waved to the crowd. Arthur didn’t fall to his knees, or leap in the air, point to the sky, fall on his back, or leap into the crowd to embrace his “team.” In fact, I don’t recall that he had a “team” who supported him through the travails of a Wimbledon fortnight. He simply played superb tennis, won the match, went to the net, and shook hands. Always the calm, collected gentleman.

And that’s what set Arthur Ashe apart: he was cool, calm, and collected. His widow tells us that beneath the calm exterior burned a heart of fire, intense hatred of racism and a determination to make the world a better place. But he never let us show. He read copiously and he thought a great deal. And he stood up for what was important not only to himself but to others of his race and kind. He practiced that ancient art of self-control, patterned after the Greeks, one might imagine. As South African writer Don Mattera said to Arthur in a letter he wrote to him, “I love you not for the rage in your soul, but how it’s been trained to be rebuked and summoned.” What a great tribute, though it is an art that has been lost — especially so in our day when rage is all the rage and raw emotions are the tune all delight in playing. Arthur would today be a severe disappointment to the media who crave the spectacular, who have substituted entertainment value for character because it sells the sponsor’s products.  He eschewed the spectacular for the effective. He stood fast against what was wrong in the world and quietly and with relentless determination did whatever he could to put an end to it. As Bill Simonds says in his article in Inside Tennis, “That was Arthur’s modus operandi — he was always controlled, but he spoke out, he got arrested in front of the White House and in front of the South African embassy. He convinced the ATP not to have tournaments in South Africa.” Senator Bill Bradley said of Arthur, “Ashe was not loud, he did not boast, he thought before he spoke. Like a good poet, he used silence to his advantage. He held back until he was ready, and he made that restraint his best advantage. His best smile showed no teeth.” Beautifully said.

Arthur did not approve of the more militant stand many of his peers took against the racial injustice they saw all around them. He was particularly upset when black gang members dragged Reginald Denny from a truck during the L.A. riots. That was just not his way, though he felt the injustice of racism just as deeply. He was considering a run at the U.S. Senate when his health made it impossible. And while he was criticized for his apparent quietism by people like John Thompson and Jesse Jackson, he was convinced that his way was the best way: it was the only way he knew. He liked to quote Martin Luther King who said of the Black Power movement, “I hope our thirst for freedom doesn’t make us want to drink from the cup of bitterness.”   I am convinced that if others around him had adopted Arthur Ashe’s approach in time more people would have come around to his way of thinking. But before he could give full voice to his quiet rage, he was silenced by a disease that entered his veins unknown to him. It is truly sad that there aren’t more like him.