(First published on my blog on Feb 6, 2016).
Arthur Ashe died 23 years ago today at the age of 49. If he were still alive, he’d be 72. The cause of death was pneumonia, an opportunistic infection his immune system developed, ravaged by the HIV virus. He received HIV from a blood transfusion that he was given during heart surgery in the early 1980s. This was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, before all donated blood was carefully screened for HIV and well before there were medications that could enable people (at least in those in the West) to live full lives treating AIDS as a manageable, chronic infection.
Arthur was my first real hero. I learned to play tennis @ the age of 15 in Nigeria when a Nigerian coach approached the PE teacher at our American school offered to teach tennis to anyone who was interested. I was one of only three students who was eager to have lessons. To this day, and despite a chronically injured body, playing tennis remains one of my great joys and passions. I grew up knowing that Arthur was the first (and so far only) black man to win Wimbledon (1975) beating Jimmy Connors for the first and only time in his career which was a huge upset. He also won the US Open (1968) and the Australian Open (1972). On the court, he was known to have a fiery serve-and-volley game (sadly, all but gone among today’s players). As the only black player at the time in an all white country club sport and growing up in segregated Richmond, he learned from a young age to conduct himself both on and off the court with the utmost integrity and respect. The likes of Zina Garrison, James Blake, Mal Washington, Venus and Serena Williams, Madison Keys – and the list goes on – stand on the shoulders of Arthur.
I never had the privilege of seeing Arthur play tennis. He retired over a decade before I came to the US. But on one occasion, I did see Arthur up close. I was at the Wimbledon Women’s final in 1990, sharing a single ticket with a friend. I watched the first set: Zina Garrison lost that one 4-6 to Martina Navratilova, and then I came out of Centre Court to give my ticket to my friend so he could go in to watch the second set. Arthur was milling around outside. Of course I recognized him, looked at him, and he looked at me, but that was it. I didn’t know at the time he was living with HIV and that he had less than three years to live. I wish I’d had the courage to shake his hand and thank him for all that he’d contributed to tennis, but I was too shy (and frankly dumbstruck) to seize the moment. I didn’t have the presence of mind to think of anything to say, so I kept moving and that opportunity passed.
Arthur was far more than an outstanding tennis player who made history. He was also a scholar (compiling a 3 volume work on the history of African-American athletes called ‘A Hard Road to Glory’); a writer (he was just finishing his memoir ‘Days of Grace’ when he passed away so it was published posthumously; an activist (demonstrated against apartheid and got arrested for protesting the treatment of Haitian immigrants); a non-conformist (the first black man given a visa to play in a tennis tournament in apartheid South Africa), a mentor (founded what is now called the National Junior Tennis League to introduce city kids to tennis and the skills to that go along with being an upright citizen of your community); a philanthropist (he started the Arthur Ashe AIDS Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS to contribute to research that would limit the impact of this disease); and a recruiter (he plucked Yannick Noah from the tennis courts of Cameroon who later became the second black man – after Arthur – to win a Grand Slam, the French Open in 1983). He was also a father (he died when his daughter was 6, sadly, just as his mother had passed away when he was 6), husband (married to the esteemed photographer Jeanne Moutousamy), friend, widely respected colleague, and beloved son of Richmond, VA. Thousands filed past his open casket when he lay in state there for two days before his funeral on Feb 10 and 5,000 reportedly attended the memorial service @ Cathedral St John the Divine on Friday the 13th.
I was one of them. There was a snow storm that day and the city was shrouded in a blanket of thick, wet flakes. I remember being cold inside that Cathedral; large old churches like that are notoriously difficult to heat. But I was warmed by the love and affection countless friends and colleagues had for Arthur and how well, it seemed, he’d lived his all too short life. Billie Jean King had been a commentator with him @ Wimbledon and she wore a purple blazer – one of the Wimbledon colors – in solidarity with him. His best friend and lawyer, Donald Dell, told us how Arthur was as a solid a person away from the publicity as his celebrity status had led us to believe. I was always impressed that Arthur used his platform to speak (and act) out against injustice and for those less fortunate than he. He remained a man with simple tastes, understated to the end, but his legacy as a Renaissance man lives on and for that I am grateful.
Hallelujah Arthur Ashe, hallelujah! (Courtesy of Andrew Young who married Arthur and Jeanne. This is how he concluded his Eulogy @ Arthur’s funeral)
(Photo credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated)