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A Gentleman, A Revolutionary

February 9, 2003

Remembering Arthur Ashe: A Gentleman, a Revolutionary


The Arthur Ashe I knew was not only a tennis player, an activist, a thinker, a writer; he was also a man of uncommon grace and power. On this, the 10th anniversary of his death — Arthur died on Feb. 6, 1993 — I want to express my sentiments about my good friend of 23 years.

When I first met him, he was a skinny young man with a whippy tennis game. He had great wrist action in his strokes, on both his forehand and his backhand. He had a tremendous arsenal of shots; he could hit his backhand about seven different ways. He was shy, introverted, but he was a risk taker. He was never afraid to take a chance to win a point. Even then, there was a touch of the quiet revolutionary in him.

As he matured, he developed into a genuinely intellectual man: inquisitive, studious, a man who loved learning. This side of his nature is what led him to champion so many causes, rationally and reasonably. To say that Arthur Ashe transcended tennis is an understatement.

Yet it was tennis that remained a passion. Arthur was focused on being the best player he could be. He achieved that zenith in 1975 with his victory over Jimmy Connors to win Wimbledon — in my opinion, his greatest triumph on the court. That match remains a classic example of brains over brawn. Connors's combination of power and consistency was considered invincible, and yet Arthur diffused that force, thinking and calculating his way to the signature championship of his exceptional 15-year career.

Of course, Arthur always knew that he carried more obligations than merely winning tennis matches. He knew that he was representing his race at all times. The demands of such a burden are difficult to fathom, certainly for those of us who have never experienced it. Through it all, Arthur remained patient, always willing to give of his time to meet with people, to sign autographs or to conduct a clinic for underprivileged kids.

I was surprised when I read Arthur's quote that the toughest obstacle he had faced was not his two open heart surgeries, or even AIDS, but rather, as he put it, "being born black in America." We had a long discussion about it. He told me that regardless of how prominent you were, each day every black person in this country was made aware that he or she was black. Arthur had faced racism as a young man growing up in Richmond, Va., and regardless of his success, he continued to have to deal with it his whole life.

His commitment to making a difference, along with his sense of justice, led him to become a leader in the anti-apartheid movement. He assumed the role in his usual intellectual way. He first visited South Africa in 1973, largely as a learning experience. At the time, he was denounced by the black community, much of which felt that he was being used as a pawn by the South African government. But Arthur believed that you could not speak out against apartheid unless you knew something about it. He also thought it was important for young blacks there to see a free black man, one of accomplishment and stature in his chosen field.

Arthur's sense of responsibility to his race, again coupled with his intellectual curiosity, led to one of his proudest achievements. While attempting to research the heritage of black athletes, he found no definitive work on the subject. In typical Ashe fashion, he set out to produce one. He invested three years of his time and money and employed three research assistants to write "A Hard Road to Glory," a three-volume history of the black athlete in America. That work, published in 1993, is a milestone in the field of historical sports writing; the script for the television version, which Arthur also wrote, won three Emmys.

For all his public achievements, I was always struck, in my personal relationship with him, by his overriding sense of trust. That trust pervaded my professional dealings with him as his lawyer for 23 years. We never had a formal contract. After an initial letter of agreement in 1970, he and I renewed each year with a handshake. Trust came naturally to him. He strongly believed — and we would debate this long and often — that there was a lot more good in people than bad.

But that trusting nature belied his toughness. Clearly, Arthur was tough on the tennis court, but off the court, he was just as strong-willed. One need look no further than the strong, unpopular stands he took on issues like more stringent academic standards for college athletes. Often swimming against the tide, Arthur always chose what he believed to be the moral and principled course.

And, obviously, Arthur had to be a man of great courage to deal with his medical traumas. Not once, when he learned that he had AIDS, did he say, "Why me?" He felt that same question could be asked of all the wonderful things he enjoyed in life. Why did he win Wimbledon? Why did he marry a beautiful, talented woman, Jeanne, who was such a major force in his life, and become father to a loving, precious child, Camera? No. When it came to adversity, Arthur preferred to pose the question differently. "Why not me?" he would ask.

When our group was leaving South Africa in 1973, someone handed my wife, Carole, a newspaper. Rolled inside it was a poem from Don Matera, a South African poet and freedom fighter who had recently been banned and was therefore prohibited from meeting with Arthur in public. I think that poem really captures the essence of Arthur Ashe.

I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step revolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of tolerance. . . .
and I loved you brother —
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,
Trained to be rebuked or
summoned. . . .

These lines reveal the true Arthur Ashe: a man of quiet philosophy, with a raging, noble soul — a man I loved so much. We may never see his like again.

Donald L. Dell was the United States Davis Cup captain in 1968-69 when Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Bobby Lutz and Charley Pasarell won the cup. He was chairman of Pro Serv from 1970 to 1997, and is currently a senior vice president at Clear Channel Entertainment.

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