Like Ali, activist Ashe is more than just a hero to adoring black populace

ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- This is unbelievable, but only if you believe sports personalities live in a world that doesn't feature those with flesh and bones. Arthur Ashe has AIDS, and the eulogies have begun.

For this generation of black Americans, one of the nearest equivalents to April 10, 1947, occurred on July 5, 1975. That's when Arthur Ashe became Jackie Robinson. I'll never forget it, and neither will my family, all huddled around the television that Saturday afternoon to watch history travel our way from Wimbledon, England.


There was Arthur Ashe, among the darkest persons either inside or outside Centre Court, using his mind to conquer Jimmy Connors' muscle. After several frantic hours, the sun rotated around the moon. It was 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4 in favor of the people's choice, at least in our household.

"That," says my father, chuckling now, "was the only time I ever watched a tennis match from start to finish."


Ashe became the first black ever to win the singles championship at Wimbledon. Not only that, he did so against Connors, the defending champion, the guy who entered the match with $8 million worth of lawsuits against Ashe for slander and libel. After all, Ashe had voiced his disgust with Connors' refusal to play on the U.S. Davis Cup team earlier that year by sending a letter about Connors to American players. Connors wasn't amused.

Whatever, Arthur Ashe won, but the revolution involving the flood of American black males to professional tennis never happened. As a result, Arthur Ashe remains tennis' Jackie Robinson without Hank Aarons, Reggie Jacksons and David Justices waiting in the wings.

The point is that as an athlete, they don't come bigger than Arthur Ashe in the annals of sports history in the black community, unless they are named Muhammad Ali.

Like Ali, Ashe was more than just an athlete who surged into legend among his peers. Like Ali, Ashe became one of the few active or former black superstars to leave the shadows for the sunshine when the subject involved race. In 1970, Ashe helped get South Africa banned from the Davis Cup. Later, he was among the first to urge blacks to use their success in sports to advance civil rights causes.

Ashe always has remained true to his calling. Three years ago, when I wrote a column that said the NCAA's efforts to toughen its academic standards for athletes through Proposition 48 wasn't only good for blacks, but wasn't tough enough, I got a letter from Ashe. The letter came from Ashe's office in New York. I'd never met the man, but he wrote to tell me that he enjoyed my thoughts on the subject, and that he wished others would agree.

Now comes another sledgehammer to our senses, another sports hero with a fatal disease. Last November, it was Magic Johnson, standing there, telling us that he was inflicted with the AIDS virus. This was worse. This time, yesterday afternoon, there was Arthur Ashe informing the world that he has AIDS, period. He said he probably contracted the disease from a blood transfusion he received after his second heart attack.

Unlike Johnson, Ashe said he didn't wish to disclose his illness, but he hadn't a choice, mostly because the rumor that began 3 1/2 years ago was on the verge of being exposed as fact.

There are two sad things here. First, if somebody wants to disclose that he or she has AIDS, fine. It also should be the prerogative of any individual not to say as much, but since we live in a world of flesh and bones, we know that Arthur Ashe has AIDS. Second, the public already is whispering about the spread of AIDS among black athletes, past and present. There was Magic, of course, and there was Arthur. But there also were Jackie Smith and Tim Richmond, both white, both dead from AIDS.


We're talking an equal opportunity disease.