(February 6, 2013) -- Steve Flink and Donald Dell have already written a pair of thoughtful pieces to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Arthur Ashe's tragic death in 1993, and in those pieces each tackles with remarkable clarity the colossal goodness that Ashe the man represented.
Ashe, who died at the age of 49 due to complications from AIDS, was infinitely more than just a great tennis player. Additionally--and much more importantly--he was infinitely more than a weekend philanthropist looking for a way to burnish his image and to make inroads into the world of politics and celebrity after his tennis career ended.
No, Ashe was the real deal. A bona fide pioneer, and a true transcendent figure. In a sports world filled with the good but not so genuine intentions of professional athletes, Ashe was that rare jewel of a person who could carry the torch of intellect and athleticism, one in each hand, raised swiftly to shine a light.
"Sports is an American factory for children's heroes because kids play games; they can relate and be awed," wrote S.L. Price in Sports Illustrated, a year after Ashe's death. “But Ashe was a rarer kind of hero; an example of what to do when playing stops; a role model for adults.”
With that in mind, and with the realization that many have never seen Ashe play live (myself included) or known of the dignity that he possessed in the public realm, we honor the man today by sharing some of his essence.
"I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without humane purpose," Ashe once said, matter of factly. "Without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others."
Not the typical wordplay of the world-class athlete, to be sure, but those words, spoken in his calm, cerebral manner, are quintessentially Ashe.
Which is why Ashe's final Grand Slam triumph, at the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon, against the smug and self-obsessed Jimmy Connors, provided tennis with one of its most memorable symbolic achievements of all-time. It wasn't just that Ashe mentally, physically and spiritually deconstructed Connors on that day, or that he was a heavy underdog against the defending champion and game's rising star and premium henchman. It was the dignity and the depth of Ashe's performance that stood out.
Not only did he outclass Connors as a tennis player on that day; Ashe unwittingly outclassed him as a person. From the moment the two stepped on the court, Ashe proudly (and symbolically) in his team USA warm-ups, Connors indignantly in his green and red Tacchini sweats, it was apparent that this would be a clash of two different high and mighty worlds. Ashe's world of spirit, of loyalty, of self-reflection would clash with Connor's world of flash, of showmanship, of self-idolization.
That Ashe had quipped with Connor's in the months and weeks previous to their battle about Connors choice to forego Davis Cup play for the lure of big-money events elsewhere made the victory even sweeter.
But for Ashe, unlike Connors, the game wasn’t necessarily about the victory; it was more about potential, striving, and daring to break through to higher planes. Even had Ashe lost to Connors on that day, as he had lost their previous three encounters, there would have remained Ashe’s dignity, depth, and his powerful ability to illuminate, to educate, and to empathize.
Ashe touched so many during his career, and after his career too. He traveled to South Africa, championing equality, he toured the United States, setting up tennis centers for children and numerous other charitable foundations. Even on his deathbed he took up the cause, conducting his final mission by raising awareness on the ravages of AIDS.
“Militant in his convictions, but mild in his manner, this slim, bookish and bespectacled athlete never thought himself a rebel and preferred information to insurrection,” wrote Robin Finn, in a New York Times obituary from February 8th, 1993.
“Arthur showed you what is possible to be accomplished,” Zina Garrison, former World No. 4, told Finn. “I always wanted to follow in his footsteps, and nobody can forget that he made the footsteps.”
Ashe, the first black man to win Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open, always knew that he was destined to be more than just a wildly talented, trophy-hoarding athlete. “He was a voice for all the minorities, and that goes for women, too,” Pam Shriver told the New York Times. “He brought a level of conscience to the game, whether he was speaking on South Africa or inner-city minorities or exclusionary policies anyplace. Arthur’s influence on tennis didn’t fade after he left the sport.”
That so many grieved so deeply--and still do--for Ashe is a testament to his achievements in all arenas. To conjure the indelible footprint that he left, and to bask in the glory of his lasting contributions to tennis, America and the world, feels like the right thing to do.
To let his influence wash over us, so that we may become better people, would be even better.
“My potential is more than can be expressed within the bounds of my racial or ethnic identity,” Ashe once said.
But David Dinkins, former New York Mayor, might have said it even better. “Words cannot suffice to capture a career as glorious, a life as fully lived, or a commitment to justice as firm and as fair as was his.”