I had not yet heard of Barack Obama at the time, and certainly had not considered the kind of leap forward in American race relations that could lead to voting a black man into the White House. But in late August of 1992, during a lengthy interview with Arthur Ashe, it suddenly didn’t seem the least bit unreasonable when Ashe said, “I really want to be president. I think I can be a good president.”
Here in Black History Month and, this Friday, exactly 22 years since Ashe’s death at 49 from complications of AIDS, is an ideal time to be reminded that Arthur Ashe is not just a stadium in New York City. Not just some departed tennis pioneer.
Ashe called himself a “political nut.” He was the rare athletic champion who actually connected with the real world. He was an activist against South African apartheid, a public face in the fight against HIV (which he had contracted through a blood transfusion after a second heart attack), an advocate for children’s education, a published historian.
When he found research material on past black athletes frustratingly lacking, he spent six years finishing his own three-volume work, “A Hard Road to Glory.” He was disappointed to learn that three-time Olympic track and field champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee had never heard of Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win Olympic gold (in the 1948 high jump). He called a dismissive quote by baseball’s Vince Coleman (“I don’t know nothing about no Jackie Robinson”) “one of the saddest things I’ve ever heard.”
Ashe was a worldly, well-educated black man of enormous calm and grace who shattered stereotypes: An athlete with a sense of history, a jock interested in schooling, an elite sportsman who played in horn-rimmed glasses. He was a black star in what had been (and mostly remains) a white man’s sport—winner of three of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments.
And to celebrated sportswriter Frank Deford, who knew Ashe well, Ashe had offered a glimpse of the 2008 presidential campaign, in that Obama “reminds me more of Arthur Ashe than anyone in his own business,” Deford wrote.
After his death on Feb. 6, 1993, Ashe’s coffin was put on public view in the state capitol building in Richmond, Va.—Ashe’s hometown, but also the capital of the Confederacy and the heart of the not-so-long-ago segregated South. A local Baptist preacher named Larry Nobles was among some 5,500 people who paid their respects over four hours, marveling at the setting (Robert E. Lee’s father originally had lived on the site). “This is history, isn’t it?” Nobles asked then. “Look at this. This is history.”
In the crowd that day was LaVerne Buckner, who said she sat in front of Ashe in sophomore history class at segregated Maggie Walker High School more than 30 years before. “I was talking with friends before,” she said, “and we mentioned that Stonewall Jackson and Lee must be rumbling in their graves today.”
At Ashe’s funeral the next day, then-New York mayor David Dinkins called Ashe a “freedom fighter” and “one of the most decent human beings I have ever known. Let me say it as plainly as I can: Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us.”
The story was told about Ashe’s younger brother once sarcastically asking him, “If the world breaks down, are you going to fix it with a tennis racket?” Followed by testimonials that, in effect, Ashe did.
There now is a statue of Ashe in Richmond, at one end of Monument Avenue—which also has sculptures of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Confederate general Robert E. Lee—depicting Ashe with books in one hand and a tennis racket in the other, and surrounded by children. Symbolically fixing the world through a new generation.
“He said he did not wish to be remembered just as a tennis player,” then-Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown told mourners at the funeral, “and I’m sure that we all will honor that wish. But I will surely remember his victory in the U.S. Open [in 1968—the first year of open tennis], and I surely will remember his victory at Wimbledon [in 1975]. He was a beautiful black man in beautiful white clothes, playing a beautiful white game. And winning.”
Jesse Jackson called Ashe “a moment in the conscience of mankind.” A champion, Jackson said, “when he wins, rides on the people’s shoulders. But a hero lifts the people. When Arthur won, we were on his shoulders.”
Ashe had been introduced to tennis when he was 5 years old, as the result of his father being named caretaker of the second-largest tennis club in Richmond, a job that came with a house located on the club’s grounds. Tutored by Lynchburg physician Walter Johnson, who had aided Althea Gibson’s entry into the national championships at Forest Hills—the forerunner to the U.S. Open—Ashe earned a tennis scholarship to UCLA, graduated with a business degree, learned 16 variations of the backhand stroke and became the first tennis pro to earn over $100,000. He looked out for his colleagues, founding the ATP, the players’ union for the men’s tour, at a tumultuous time when major tournaments were moving past an amateur model.
“Athletes,” he noted during that 1992 interview, “are focused on the here and now. Most of our premier athletes are between 18 and 34 years old. In that range, you’re at your best in a physical and emotional sense. You think you’re immortal. We all think of ourselves as invincible, indestructible.”
Yet he always was thinking beyond the game. Being able to sit down with national and global shakers and movers and decision-makers, he said, was “one of the joys of being a professional tennis player for 10 years.” When Nelson Mandela was released from his South African prison after 27 years, the first person he asked to visit was Ashe.
At a New York City memorial two days after Ashe’s funeral, tennis champ Billie Jean King said, “Arthur had the cutest, tiniest, sweetest ears I’ve ever seen on a human being. I used to ask him, ‘How do your glasses ever stay on those sweet little ears?’ But those tiny ears listened to so much. Because it didn’t matter to Arthur what gender you were, or what race, or what country you came from….”
Former basketball pro Bill Bradley who, like Ashe, was a world-class athlete who wanted to do more with his life than just be an athlete, declared at the memorial service that Ashe “made a difference. Arthur, you will be remembered.”
If he is not, it would be one of the saddest things a soul could hear. I, too, think he could have been a good president.