Sunday, July 30, 2006

TAS: Farewell to Arthur Ashe

February 10, 1993

He was the only African American male to ever win a singles championship at Wimbledon. He was the only African American to win at the U.S. Open. He meant more to the world than being just another tennis player--and now he is gone.

Arthur Ashe died on Saturday from pneumonia related to the AIDS virus.

I have always enjoyed watching tennis and I have always enjoyed trying to play tennis. I wish that I was old enough to remember Arthur Ashe when he was in his prime.

They say that he had a fluid style very distinct from other players. They say that he always played at his best. Jimmy Connors--the ultimate showman of two generations of tennis players said that he always put on a good show for the spectators. He certainly was a great tennis player, but he was more as well.

Ashe enjoyed the distinction of being a groundbreaker. He helped surmount the color barrier in tennis in much the same way that Jackie Robinson surmounted the same barrier in baseball, but Ashe never received the same amount of praise--until he died.

It is a sad fact that many deserving people remain unknown or underappreciated until they are gone. But I suppose that is the lesson taught in It's A Wonderful Life--we never know how important someone is until they are gone.

The papers were filled with tributes to him on Monday. Martina Navratilova called him "an extraordinary human being who transcended his sport, his race, religion, and nationality . . . ." President Clinton called him "the embodiment of true sportsmanship."

Everyone was filled with words to say about the man that grew up in Richmond, Virginia and helped give other African American tennis players like Zina Garrison a chance to fulfill their dreams. Even Frenchman Yannick Noah is in Ashe's debt. "It was thanks to him that I could have a career in tennis," Noah said. "It was him who, when I was young, gave me the dream."

Sadly, Ashe's life was shortened by AIDS, which he contracted from an unscreened blood transfusion while undergoing heart surgery in 1983.

The news of his illness did not become official until last year however, and it made big time news. Following closely on Magic Johnson's admission of having AIDS, Ashe was shown as another sports hero stricken with the disease.

But I don't care what he died of. So many people die of AIDS all the time these days--that is not the point. Ashe was more than a tennis player. Certainly his life revolved around the game, but he tried to be more. I hope that people will not remember him as just a tennis player or as just someone famous who died of AIDS, but as someone who tried to open more doors for the underprivileged and the oppressed.

I think that is what he truly deserved.



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