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Ashe's impact felt far beyond tennis

Posted: Wednesday, February 05, 2003

On a winter's day, James Blake gave a clinic for children at the Harlem Tennis Center, the old wood-floored armory where Arthur Ashe once did the same when Blake was a child.

To Blake's regret, he doesn't remember meeting Ashe and didn't learn much about him until his death from an AIDS-related illness 10 years ago Thursday, when Blake was 13.

''The more I learned about him, the more impressed I was with him,'' Blake said before going to Croatia to play this weekend for the U.S. Davis Cup team, as Ashe did with distinction so many times.

''He made such a difference in this world and it overshadows what he did as a tennis player. What I learned from Arthur was to be a well-rounded person, to make academics as important as tennis. That's what worked for him and that's what worked for me. That's something I try to pass on to kids.''

What Ashe did is still making a difference. His spirit is alive in programs he started in education, urban health, junior tennis and the fight against AIDS.

At a time when athletes are arrested regularly and outlandish behavior abounds in so many sports, Ashe is missed as much for his grace and dignity as for his intelligence and willingness to address the larger issues facing society.

Ashe's portrait dominates a folk-art mural on a brick wall at the entrance of the Harlem center, the U.S. Open is played in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and a commemorative garden at the National Tennis Center is dedicated to him. A bronze statue of him, two books in his right hand raised higher than the racket in his left as he talks to children, stands in his native Richmond, Va.

''I don't like Arthur being remembered as bricks and mortar or as someone who died of AIDS, just those things,'' his widow, the photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, said. ''I think the most extraordinary thing about him is that he had simple gifts and he used them. That was why he touched so many people.

''Arthur was not an Einstein, not a genius. He did something that all of us can attain, and that in itself is extraordinary. It's exemplary. Because we can all actually achieve some of that in our life, regardless of what our passion is.''

Each year she has remembered this somber anniversary with a Mass in his honor. This year, she said, there will be no funereal tone to the occasion, but rather ''a joyous celebration of the meaning of his life'' in a New York church with family and friends.

Ashe, the U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open champion who died at 49, was one of the few athletes, like Muhammad Ali, who transcended sports by taking stands on political and social issues.

Race, he said famously, was a greater burden on his life than AIDS as he grew up in the segregated South and rose to the top of the whites-only world of tennis.

He protested apartheid in South Africa and the rejection of Haitian refugees by the United States. When it became public that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during heart surgery, he did what anybody who knew him would think he would do and became a leader in the fight against the disease.

''People criticize athletes today, like Tiger Woods, for not taking a stand on issues,'' Moutoussamy-Ashe said. ''Arthur was criticized, too. People wanted him to do more in the '60s, to join the fight. Yet Arthur knew that he would have a bigger impact if he could become the best in his sport and gain that platform to be heard. Arthur felt very strongly about athletes leading their communities. He was very much about the greater cause.

''We can only hope that those who are in a position to do that now will do the same. I'm not criticizing anybody. That's not my place. But that was his role, and at times he suffered for it. But it's 10 years later and look where his legacy is.''

The aptly named ''Voice of Conscience'' award for humanitarian efforts is given out in his name each year by the Aetna Foundation -- last year's going to former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young, who married Ashe and his wife.

Lean and bespectacled, a UCLA graduate and a systems analyst as a second lieutenant at West Point, Ashe carefully thought through his positions. His quietness amplified his voice.

''When I think about him,'' Moutoussamy-Ashe said, ''I miss his kindness.''

Their 16-year-old daughter, Camera, she said, has his dry sense of humor.

Ashe's impact is best measured by the work that continues in his name -- the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, the Safe Passage Foundation, the Arthur Ashe Foundation and an endowment for AIDS research -- and by those he inspired beyond breaking barriers in tennis.

He co-founded the National Junior Tennis League in 1969 to help inner city kids learn a game that had country-club roots and to encourage them educationally. In 2002, the program, now run by the USTA, served nearly 200,000 children.

''Some youngsters in the program will become world class players, as did James Blake and the Williams sisters, who came off the streets of Compton, Calif., and they'll make millions of dollars,'' said David Dinkins, the former New York City mayor who has been on the league's board for more than two decades. ''Over time, there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of youngsters who will play sufficiently well as to earn college scholarships. But what's important to me is the millions nationwide who simply stay out of trouble and become productive citizens because of tennis and because of Arthur Ashe's Junior Tennis League.''

Richard Lapchick, the sports sociologist and chairman of a graduate program emphasizing diversity, community service and ethics in sports at the University of Central Florida, first met Ashe in 1977. They were on opposite sides of the anti-apartheid issue in the early days, Ashe believing that going to South Africa would help build bridges, Lapchick serving as head of a national group leading a boycott.

At a protest Lapchick had organized at the U.S. Open against South African athletes, Ashe decided to address the crowd.

''My first reaction was that it was going to be disastrous,'' Lapchick said, ''because here's the only black American tennis player of note and he believes that we're wrong. If he comes out and tells that to the crowd he'll have such credibility that he'll pretty much disperse the protesters.''

Instead, Ashe told the demonstrators that he supported them, that he had been wrong in going to South Africa for several years. He thought he was doing the right thing, he said, but changed his mind when he tried to buy tickets for some African children on a recent trip and was told to go to the ''coloreds-only'' ticket booth on the other side of the stadium.

''He became the greatest advocate of the boycott for all the reasons I feared that he might be a voice in opposition to us,'' Lapchick said. ''He just had such credibility, for all the reasons that made him Arthur Ashe, but one more for me was that there aren't many people who say that they were wrong about something.''

The way Ashe carried himself and the way he competed -- fiercely but with integrity -- made a difference in the way white tennis players and fans viewed black players. When he won the U.S. Open in 1968, only months after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, Ashe emerged as a voice of reason and social awareness in the sports world.

''He was one of the few athletes who understood that he could take public stands on issues and not be cut out of the greater picture of sports,'' Lapchick said. ''That's always been a fear of athletes in this country, that the leagues or endorsers will cut them out. Arthur, Ali and Bill Russell spoke out consistently throughout their lives and ultimately became more admired by the public.''

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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