It has been 10 years since my friend Arthur Ashe died. He has stayed in my thoughts ever since. This is a good time for all of us to remember him, not only because of the anniversary of his death, Feb. 6, but also because it is Black History Month, and this is a history that Arthur not only helped make but also helped write.
When I met him more than three decades ago, Arthur Ashe was a skinny young man with a whippy tennis game: great wrist action, a tremendous arsenal of shots and the ability to hit his backhand about seven different ways. He was introverted, but also a risk-taker -- at least on the tennis court. And even then there was a touch of the quiet revolutionary about him.
As he matured, Arthur developed into a genuinely intellectual man: inquisitive, studious, in love with learning. And from his learning came the desire to champion many causes, something that he did rationally and reasonably.
All the while, he never lost his passion for tennis or his desire to be the best player he could be. Arthur's victory over Jimmy Connors in the 1975 Wimbledon final still stands as a classic example of the triumph of brains over brawn. Connors's power and consistency were considered invincible at the time, but Arthur defused that force, thinking and calculating his way to the signature championship of his long career.
Arthur always knew he carried more obligations than merely winning tennis matches. He knew he was representing his race at all times. Through it, he remained patient, willing to give of his time to meet with people, sign autographs, conduct a clinic for underprivileged kids.
It was his sense of obligation, and of justice, that made him a leader in one of the great causes of our time: the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He first visited that country in 1973, largely as a learning experience, and found himself under attack from some who accused him of being a pawn of the South African government. But Arthur believed he could not speak out against apartheid unless he knew something about it. He also thought it important for young blacks in South Africa to see a free black man, one of accomplishment and stature.
On the subject of race, I was surprised when I read a quotation from Arthur to the effect that the toughest obstacle he had ever faced was not his two open-heart surgeries or even AIDS but, rather, "being born black in America." We had a long discussion about that. He felt I didn't understand. He told me that regardless of prominence, every black person in this country was made aware every day that he or she was black. He had faced racism as a young man growing up in Richmond, and regardless of his success, he continued to have to deal with it his whole life.
He once told me of playing in a tournament in Charlottesville as a 15-year-old. He joined a group of fellow competitors -- all white -- who decided to go to the movies after the matches. At the theater, Arthur was turned away because of his race. When he related this story to me years later, I could see that it still affected him deeply.
Arthur's sense of responsibility to his fellow African Americans led to one of the achievements of which he was most proud. In trying to research the history of black athletes in this country, he was unable to find any definitive work on the subject. In typical Ashe fashion, he set about producing one himself. He invested three years of his time and a considerable amount of money employing three research assistants to produce "A Hard Road to Glory," a three-volume history of the black athlete in America. That work is a milestone in the field of sports historical writing; the television version, the script of which Arthur also wrote, won him three Emmys.
I was always struck, in my personal relations with Arthur, by his overriding sense of trust. In the 23 years I was his attorney, we never had a formal contract; after an initial letter of agreement in 1970, he and I renewed each year with a handshake. Arthur strongly believed, despite all he had seen and been through, that there was a lot more good in people than bad.
But, of course, he was also tough -- taking strong, principled stands on difficult issues, including the need for more stringent academic standards for athletes. Above all he was courageous, especially during his final illness. Not once, after he learned that he had AIDS, did he say, "Why me?" He felt that same question could be asked of the good things he enjoyed in life: professional success and a wonderful wife, Jeanne, and daughter, Camera.
When our group was leaving South Africa in 1973, someone handed my wife a newspaper. Rolled up inside was a poem from Don Matera, a banned South African poet who had been prohibited from meeting with Arthur. I think it 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.
The writer, who was captain of the U.S. Davis Cup teams in 1968 and 1969 and is a lawyer and founder of ProServ, a firm representing professional athletes.