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People Top 5
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- February 22, 1993
- Vol. 39
- No. 7
Man of Grace and Glory
With His Uncommon Mix of Humility and Courage, Arthur Ashe Won the Love of Those Who Knew Him and the Admiration of the Millions He Inspired
The fact that Ashe had AIDS should have prepared everyone for the inevitability of it all, but this man had always defied expectation. In recent months, he seemed to be everywhere, energetically publicizing and discussing the plight of AIDS patients, of would-be Haitian immigrants, of poor people in Africa. Then, on Feb. 5, a case of pneumonia took a sudden turn for the worse, and within 24 hours Ashe was dead. The news proved both painful and numbing to his legion of friends. On the Today show, Bryant Gumbel was so overcome that the camera had to pan away as he broke down and wept on the air. The loss was stunning. The emptiness immense.
Even if he had never done anything away from a tennis court, Arthur Ashe would have been hailed as a hero. His 1968 U.S. Open and 1975 Wimbledon championships, the first ever won by a black man, were more than enough to ensure lasting fame. The wonder, though, was that athletic excellence was just one of his accomplishments. He had become an authentic voice of conscience, a shining example of dignity in extremis. And he wielded his influence with the same finesse and determination as he did a rack et. Last week those who knew him spoke to PEOPLE of Ashe as friend, competitor, husband and father. Their oral history is interspersed with Ashe's own observations, taken from an interview with the magazine three months before he died.
In 1943, Arthur Ashe Jr. was born in segregated Richmond, Va., and lived near the four tennis courts blacks could use....
"The first time I ever met Arthur," says Gov. Douglas Wilder of Virginia, "I ran him off the court—literally. He was about 5 or 6, and I was 14. He was playing by himself on the court near his home. I came along with some friends and suggested that he let us have the court. He was so small and the racket was so big that you could scarcely see him."
"His family lived right next to the courts," says John Watson, now a tennis coach at Virginia Union University in Richmond. "Just five or six steps. Ashe was about 8, and I was 30ish. He used to call me Prof. 'How ya' doing, Prof?' We would play constantly, and I would beat him every time. But when he was 13 or 14, I couldn't get a point. It was just love, love, love. He loved me to death.
"His schedule," says Watson, "was 5 a.m.: 1,000 balls, 1,000 serves. Then breakfast and another 1,000 balls and serves. Lunch, then more; dinner, then more. I don't believe he had much of a social life when he was coming up."
"He was never a playful child," says Horace Ashe, Arthur's uncle. "Even as a young boy he was very private. When the other boys would play marbles or cops-and-robbers or hide-and-seek, he'd be sitting, looking at some book, asking what's this word or that word. My brother, Arthur's father, was a stern person. He wasn't mean—just out of the old school. Arthur knew he was loved, but the touch, the kiss, the hug weren't shown as often."
"Arthur had the utmost respect for his father," says Dorothy Brown, an aunt on his mother's side. "Once after he was grown, he was talking about something someone had done that Arthur thought was wrong. He said, 'I couldn't do that. I couldn't face my father if I did that.' "
Still, says Rayford Harris Sr., a former school-board chairman who knew both Arthurs, Sr. and Jr., the older Ashe, who was a widower, didn't approve of everything his son did. "I think his father felt if Arthur gave all his time to tennis he might get sidetracked. There were no blacks in tennis. Tennis was a white man's game."
Ashe, however, was determined to make tennis his life, and at 17 he left Richmond....
"Arthur left to chase a dream, a fantasy," says Gilbert darter, a childhood friend who is now deputy director of Richmond's parks. "That was a big risk. Whether Wimbledon or the U.S. Open was in his mind, I don't know, but he had a little private master plan. He felt tennis would offer him a ticket. It was a very courageous thing to do. He did things that hadn't been heard of."
"We played together our junior years," says Cliff Buchholz, who with his brother Butch now runs the Lipton Championship tennis tournament in Key Biscayne, Fla. "He had moved to St. Louis [where he lived with a local family] and went to an all-black public high school. I was going to an all-white public high school. We tried to get into a movie theater [as fellow competitors at a tournament in the South], and they said no. The only time I ever heard Arthur say anything in anger was then: 'What do you want me to do, paint myself with whitewash?''
"Arthur played in the white country clubs of America," says National Football League Hall of Famer Willie Lanier, who comes from Richmond. "He had to maintain proper decorum. Part of growing up in the South was knowing your place. You had to be tentative about how much of yourself you showed. But over time, he started letting go, allowing himself to evolve and come out."
With his triumphs in the '60s and '70s, he broke racial barriers and came into his own....
"Arthur was godfather to one of my twin daughters. Alexandra," says Donald Dell, Ashe's lawyer and close friend for more than 20 years. "I used to kid him, 'You've got to play better. My kids have to go to college.' In 1975, Arthur won Wimbledon and darted out to a post office 10 yards away to write a postcard: 'Dear Alexandra. Don't worry, kid. You'll get to college. Love, Arthur.' He mailed it, then faced the press—within 15 minutes of winning. Nobody knew about it. The postcard just floated into my house a week later."
"In 1979, when I was 16," says tennis player Pam Shriver, "I was hitting on the practice court. Arthur comes by and says, 'I have no one lo warm me up. Pam, can you hit with me before my match?' I was amazed. Not only was this Arthur Ashe, but he was a guy player. There's not a guy player in die world I can think of who would ask a female pro to warm him up, because their egos are so out of whack. It didn't matter to him."
"He was very honest with the kids—brutally honest in fact," says Kayford Harris Jr, who worked with Ashe mentoring inner-city children. "He asked one of the kids once, 'What do you want to do when you grow up?' The boy said, 'Be a basketball player like Michael Jordan." Arthur said. 'Why not own the team that has Michael Jordan?' His idea was that life is too short lo aim for a mid-range goal."
In 1977, Ashe married photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy, who had been a graphic artist at a New York City TV station. In 1986, their daughter, Camera, was born....
"One day," recalls Jeanne's friend Carol Jenkins, now a weekend anchor at the station, "She said to me, 'You know, I'm going to many Arthur Ashe.' I laughed because she had never met him. And of course when they did, they fell in love immediately."
"He wasn't one to always show his emotions," says Bryant Gumbel, 44, "but he did the night he became a father. He was just beaming. Suddenly Arthur couldn't smile enough or even say enough."
"Arthur always had his arms around Camera," says Horace Ashe. "When he talked about her, his face would light up like stars in the sky. He showed more feeling for his daughter than I had seen him show his whole life. He wanted to see her take her First Communion and to see her finish high school and to give her away in marriage. He wanted to be there to see her do these things because his mother wasn't around to see him do them. Arthur was 6 when his mother passed on, and now Camera is 6...."
In April 1992, Ashe announced that he had AIDS, apparently contracted in a transfusion in 1983 during an operation for one of the three heart attacks he suffered....
"Sure I think about death," Ashe told PKOPIK last November. "But it doesn't frighten me. I never feel, 'Why me?' If I ask 'Why me?' about my troubles, I would have to ask 'Why me?' about my blessings. Why my winning Wimbledon? And why me marrying a beautiful, gifted woman and having a wonderful child?"
"I've always thought he was tremendously lucky to have Jeanne," says Carol Jenkins. "I mean, when they got married he was on crutches from a heel injury, and after that he had by-pass—surgery and then of course the transfusion. He was sick most of the time they were married. She has just been tremendously strong and supportive. She and I had lunch in the fall, and she was busy giving me inspirational material to read."
"It's tough to understand that I won't always be around for Camera," said Ashe in November. "But I thought it would be tougher than it turned out to be. She is a very bright girl. Jeanne and I will bring it up in small doses. Actually, she brings it up. 'Daddy, how did you get AIDS?' "
"Arthur's health deteriorated in the last seven months, and that's exactly the length of time I knew him," says Arnold Rampersad, Ashe's coauthor on Days of Grace: A Memoir, due out in June. "It was painful for me to watch him trying to be polite and cooperative as ever. He was popping his pills, sipping water or shooting the anti-thrush [a fungus associated with AIDS] medication into his mouth. I would look at the volume of phone calls and requests that came in and wonder how he attempted to control it all. But he would take calls, and no matter who it was, he would remain polite and kind. He was simply able to make peace with himself."
"Arthur called me in January," says Randall Robinson, an advocate for Africa and the Caribbean. " 'We have to do more work for the Haitians,' he said. "We have to do more.' It was 10 minute-before I learned that he was calling from his hospital bed [during a spell of pneumonia]."
On Feb. 5, "Arthur was on a respirator, so he couldn't talk," says Dr. Henry Murray, Ashe's personal physician. "But he was scribbling notes to find out what his blood lest results were. He was always wanting more information. He asked what was happening with the Attorney General nominations. [News of Kimba Wood's withdrawal had just broken.] At one point he motioned the OK sign, don't worry about a thing. Curious, upbeat, just like he always was."
"He worked entirely too hard," says Horace Ashe. "But that's what he wanted. None of us ever dreamed it would be this quick. But he knew within himself that his time was short. I think he knew. And he tried to cram in everything he wanted to accomplish. He was my fine young man."
MARY HUZINEC and MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City, ROCHELLE JONES and SARAH SKOLNIK in Richmond, and bureau reports
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