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Pioneer Gibson dies at 76

Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2003

Ahead of her time doesn't begin to tell the story of Althea Gibson.

But two facts culled from the end of her life do, and they remind us how painful it is to be a pioneer sometimes.

The first is that when Gibson died Sunday in a New Jersey hospital at age 76, she was just about broke.

The second is that it wasn't until almost four decades after her own victory at Wimbledon that another black woman, Zina Garrison, graced that venerable lawn in a championship match, and another dozen years after that, in 2001, that Venus and Serena Williams faced off in prime-time TV for the U.S. national championship in a stadium named after another black pioneer, Arthur Ashe, with $900,000 going to the winner.

There is no doubting Gibson's life would have been much easier if her timing had been different, just as there is no diminishing what Jackie Robinson accomplished by breaking baseball's color barrier in April 1947.

Still, Robinson didn't have to wait nearly as long as Gibson for reinforcements; just 11 weeks later, Larry Doby followed the path Jackie had blazed to a regular spot in the Cleveland lineup. On top of that, Robinson had backers in high places in the Dodgers organization, a few sympathetic teammates around him and some familiar faces looking down from the grandstands.

Blacks had been allowed into a few ballparks only a few years earlier, but Robinson once said he avoided looking at the crowd during most of his at-bats in that fateful first season, ''for fear I would see only Negroes applauding.''

But even that was rarely an option for Gibson.

She wrote a book titled, ''I Always Wanted to be Somebody,'' in which she said, ''If I made it, it's half because I was game enough to take a lot of punishment along the way and half because there were a lot of people who cared enough to help me.''

She began learning the game at a Harlem tennis club, but only because some members passed the hat to cover the cost of her dues and lessons. During her high school years, a well-to-do doctor named R.W. Johnson (who would also mentor Ashe) took her into his home and gave her free run of the grass courts out back. Yet it wasn't until three years after she started wearing out the competition in the American Tennis Association, a black-only equivalent of baseball's Negro Leagues, that Gibson was even offered a chance to compete for a U.S. national title. And even that wasn't all on the up-and-up.

After being the first black to play in the national indoor tournament and finishing second, Gibson was entitled to an invitation to the 1950 U.S. National the forerunner of the Open at Forest Hills. Yet no invitation was extended until a letter from former champion Alice Marble, who was white, appeared in a prominent magazine.

''If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players,'' Marble wrote, ''then it's only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts.''

A half-dozen years later, once Gibson adapted to the tougher competition, she broke through by winning the French and Italian singles championships. In 1957-58, she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. But because there was no pro circuit or prize money and few endorsements at the time, Gibson had to find her livelihood where she could.

Persevering wasn't as formidable a task as that faced by Jesse Owens some 20 years earlier. He returned from the 1936 Olympics after debunking Hitler's claims of racial superiority and had to eke out a living at jobs that had nothing to do with his exceptional talents unless you count the money he pocketed for a few years by running match races against horses at county fairs.

Still, she got little money and less credit as the years went by. Gibson tried getting by on tennis exhibitions, then professional golf, a record album, some books and a succession of appointments to various state and federal athletic commissions. All helped pay the bills, but just barely.

In her later years, Gibson tried to help other urban youths to follow her example, through the Althea Gibson Foundation. But as her health deteriorated, she isolated herself more and more. Former New York Mayor David Dinkins, an avid tennis player who first met Gibson decades earlier at a small black country club in Scotch Plains, N.J., always called on her birthday.

''I'd talk to the machine awhile, and I'd say, 'Champ? Pick up if you're there,''' Dinkins recalled.

He wasn't the only person to remember Gibson and all the contributions to sport and society that became her legacy. Tributes from Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams rolled in.

But none of them better highlighted the injustice Gibson suffered by getting out front so early and persevering, largely by herself, for so long than this brief tribute from Dinkins.

''Many, many people,'' he said, ''stand on Althea's shoulders.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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