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Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Wish you were still here, Arthur Ashe

By Melissa Isaacson

Arthur Ashe would have been 70 years old this July, a crazy thought, although you could certainly picture him today looking even more distinguished with gray hair, still in great shape and naturally with just as much to say.

Crazier is that Wednesday is the 20th anniversary of Ashe's death, a tragedy that grows no less sad over time as his voice continues to be missed.

Ashe will always be known for his tennis accomplishments, and since 1997, his name has graced the main stadium on the grounds at Flushing Meadows, N.Y., where he won the first U.S. Open in which pros could compete in 1968. He won two other Grand Slam singles titles, at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, the first black man to accomplish the triumvirate and also to play for and captain the U.S. Davis Cup team.

But I think he would prefer the legacy he did leave, which is just as much champion statesman and activist as champion tennis player.

I miss Ashe still. We all do, even those of us who don't realize it. We need his rock-solid voice of reason that always came as much from a place of compassion as wisdom. We need his perspective, always selfless and humane. Although we have others, we still desperately need his example, forever honest and courageous.

With every shallow or ignorant utterance from an athlete, I think of him. With calamities as well. I want to know what he would have had to say about gun violence, what he would have done to help in the wake of natural disasters and acts of terrorism and how he would have continued to assist those less fortunate than himself.

Just five months before his death, by then ill with various complications of AIDS, Ashe was arrested outside the White House for protesting the crackdown on Haitian refugees. It was during the U.S. Open, and when word reached the press box that he had been hospitalized for a mild heart attack following the arrest, you could almost feel the collective shudder that went through the place.

The unspoken thought: Why would he risk his fragile health for this? But it was but a fleeting thought for those who knew Ashe even a little.

It had been his second arrest, having been pinched in 1985 for protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C., during an anti-apartheid rally. In the 1960s, he competed in South Africa with the hope his presence would help bring about a change in the nation's apartheid policies. In 1970, he helped get South Africa banned from Davis Cup play.

Raised in a middle-class section of segregated Richmond, Va., Ashe was denied entry to a city tennis tournament at age 12, and in the white-dominated sport in which he was so gifted, he would be banned from more country clubs and tennis events than he could count.

But if he was bitter, he channeled it into positive energy. Among so many other commitments, he was a major fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund and raised millions for inner-city tennis centers. He authored a three-volume history of the black athlete in America called "A Hard Road to Glory." He was also the national chairman of the American Heart Association.

He suffered his first heart attack at age 36, while he was still playing professionally, and underwent quadruple bypass surgery five months later. More bypass surgery was required less than four years later, and it was that procedure, which required a blood transfusion, that was thought to be responsible for transmitting HIV to him.

It was 18 months before blood supplies were routinely tested for HIV.

Ashe learned he had the virus in 1988, after doctors discovered an abscess on his brain. He and his wife, Jeanne, parents of a baby daughter Camera, decided to tell only their closest friends and family.

Back then, even superstars were accessible to the press. Or at least superstars named Arthur Ashe. I was still in my 20s, working for the Orlando Sentinel, and I had his home number in my Rolodex. He would sit in the press box at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon and discuss tennis, politics or anything else you cared to talk about. He never begrudged the millions of dollars tennis players made after he left the sport like so many other former athletes seem to. He never preached.

Those in the tennis community heard rumblings over the years that he was seriously ill, but these were the days well before social media made privacy impossible, a time when simple personal dignity was often respected. But it could only last so long, and in April 1992, when his physical appearance as much as anything gave him away, a reporter from USA Today called Ashe to confirm the news, and he could not lie.

"I certainly am not looking for sympathy," he said. "I just wanted to be able to go about my routine the way I had always done. & The quality of life changes irrevocably when something like this becomes public. Reason and rational thought are too often waived out of fear, caution or just plain ignorance."

He knew this for sure when he learned his doctors and dentist started losing patients because of him.

It was that ignorance he was hoping to spare his child. He didn't cry until he mentioned her.

Camera Ashe is 26 years old, and surely she has heard many times what a great man her father was.

Sadly, she'll never know the half of it.