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Ashe fighting against a new prejudice Ex-pro battles AIDS, ignorance of disease

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- The Blue Room. City Hall. The place is cluttered with portraits of mayors, antique desks, wing-back chairs and television minicams propped on a platform.

You enter expecting to see politicians and reporters engaged in the day-to-day give-and-take of a city that doesn't close for summer.

Instead, you find Arthur Ashe, walking slowly, bringing class into the room with every step, following the lead of David Dinkins.

The ailing tennis legend in a blue-and-white warm-up and the beleaguered mayor in the double-breasted white suit have come to announce a charity event, the first stop in a 15-month world tour to raise money to battle AIDS.

The mayor says all the right things about Ashe, "a role model for so many," and AIDS, "an epidemic that is devastating our cities, and shredding the fabric of our communities."

And then Ashe, sitting impassively in an overstuffed brown leather chair, rises and reaches for the podium. His voice is a rasp, and yes, he appears thin and frail, but even when he was winning Grand Slam tournaments, you would always find yourself wondering how this skinny man in tennis shorts could hit all these ferocious serves.

Everyone is straining to hear Ashe now. He talks of Magic Johnson grabbing hold of the Olympics with a smile and Mary Fisher shaking the Republicans with her speech, of prejudices yet to be overcome. And he talks of his love for his wife, Jeanne Moutoussamy, and his 5-year-old daughter, Camera.

And he tells a New York story. He is sitting in his Volvo on the corner of 92nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue. He hears a tap on the window, and sees this frightened man waving his arms.

The man has AIDS. So does Ashe.

The man is upset. His family has turned against him. They won't let him in his house. Won't let him visit his daughter.

And as he consoles this stranger, Ashe begins comparing one man's life with his own.

"I haven't had my family do that," he says. "No one in my apartment building has done that. No one in my daughter's school has done that. Instead, people come up to me and ask, 'What can I do to help you?' "

Now, five months after reluctantly telling the world he has AIDS, six weeks after celebrating his 49th birthday, Ashe is prepared to give an answer.

This is his message.

When you have AIDS, when the blood tests come twice a month, when DDI and AZT are drugs of necessity, when you turn on the television set and hear the former surgeon general of the United States, C. Everett Koop, say that for people infected with AIDS, ++ the prospects are "they are going to die," well, you learn to choose your battles carefully, expend your time wisely.

"You learn to live with a terminal illness," he said. "I've come to my own accommodation with it. It governs your life."

In April, Ashe was dragged from the comfortable shadows of retirement as a tennis legend, forced under threat of an impending deadline at USA Today to disclose he had been harboring a secret for 3 1/2 years -- that he was infected with AIDS.

For two weeks after his dramatic, tearful announcement, he railed privately against the unwanted squall of publicity that buffeted his life.

Now, he stands and educates.

Once he battled Jim Crow racism with nothing more than his tennis racket and his heart, emerging as the first black men's champion of a country-club game.

To struggle against AIDS, though, he must rely on doctors and nurses and hospitals. But to fight the prejudice associated with the disease, he has chosen to speak out and to be seen.

"People with AIDS lose their friends, their homes, their families, their insurance, their jobs," he said. "It's irrational and medically, indefensible."

Time is the constant enemy.

"There is a strong sense of finality to it," he said. "In all likelihood, time is short, barring some breakthrough vaccine. That makes it more difficult, what you are going to do with your waking hours. Will I feel like playing golf, or maybe I should take Camera to the park."

Now, he wants money. Five million dollars to fund the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

And his friends in tennis will help him realize a dream. Today, they'll stage an exhibition at the National Tennis Center, site of the U.S. Open. The great players will be there. McEnroe. Agassi. Graf. Navratilova. Ten dollars admission and proceeds to the foundation. CBS-TV to televise the show nationally.

There is more to come. The 356 players at this year's Open have been asked to wear a small emblem -- a red ribbon over a tennis ball -- as a sign of solidarity with AIDS patients everywhere. Booths will be set up at every stop on the men's and women's tours in the next year, to take donations and distribute literature on AIDS. Even the Grand Slam events have promised to participate.

In a sport of millionaires, ruled by agents, this is nothing short of a miracle.

You see, the story of tennis in 1992 is not about Andre Agassi's clothes or Monica Seles' grunts, it's about Ashe and his reluctant crusade.

"Everything in my life is because of some personal involvement," Ashe said. "It wasn't an arm's-length relationship that just developed. I can tell you how I got involved with this, this and that. Damn it, there is some transforming development that occurs."

From the public courts of Richmond, Va., to the lawns of Wimbledon, England, Ashe created a singular career filled with milestones and the inevitable firsts.

First black U.S. Davis Cup player. First black U.S. Open men's champion. First black Wimbledon men's champion.

"We were all Negroes, or colored in those days," Ashe said.

Always, he was guided by the lessons passed down by his family and his community.

"They would say, 'A good name is worth more than diamonds and gold.' I heard it millions of times. You can't do anything to embarrass yourself and your family," Ashe said.

He has absorbed illness with stoicism and grace. His career came to a premature end four months after a heart bypass operation in 1979. Four years later, he underwent a second heart bypass. Ashe says he is "100 percent sure" he became infected with HIV through a blood transfusion after one of the operations. But it wasn't until his right hand became numb and he underwent brain surgery in 1988 to determine the cause that he was diagnosed with AIDS.

Through "a generous conspiracy," he was able to keep the illness a secret. He didn't want to relinquish his broadcast jobs. He feared disclosure for the impact it would have on his daughter. But when confronted by a USA Today reporter with rumors of the illness, Ashe acted quickly, called a news conference, and told the world of his ailment.

The world's reaction astonished him. He wasn't shunned. He was embraced. Three weeks after the announcement, he appeared at a tennis clinic in Miami and worked with children. He wondered if their parents would tell them, "don't get too close, don't touch him." Instead, the kids "were just terrific."

"I told my wife, if the kids are not afraid of me, nothing else matters," he said.

Stereotypes and fears about the transmission of AIDS disappear when men like Ashe and Magic Johnson and a woman like Mary Fisher help quell public hysteria.

"If there is an MVP for the 1992 Summer Olympics, Magic would win hands down," Ashe said. "It offers a new paradigm of how one can live with the HIV virus. He has been a large positive for the AIDS issue. He has put a different face on it. He is not someone wasting away in a hospice, he is not an IV drug user, and not someone who is gay."

Fisher, an artist, a mother and the socialite daughter of the Bush campaign's honorary finance chairman, gave AIDS another face, another voice, telling the Republican Convention the illness and the pain were things to be shared not ridiculed. Her speech delighted Ashe, who said that before her appearance, "Republicans were Neanderthal on it [AIDS]."

And yet, Ashe says, it is the world of sports that can make a difference in the fight against AIDS.

"The country looks to the sports business to see how it will handle it," he said. "Everything is public with us. We live in a fish bowl. How we treat the AIDS issue is no different."

Ashe does not expect young athletes, at the height of their physical skills, to bother wearing red ribbons for those who are dying of a disease. But through sports, through fund-raising, he hopes to reach out to others.

"The sports community has evolved with a position that is more )) in line with relevant medical evidence as opposed to paranoia and fear," he said. "At first, the sports community didn't know how to react. But Magic made everyone focus in on it. You've got to address it. You've got to focus on effort. You have to be realistic and understanding."

So Ashe will help tennis make a stand against AIDS. "Hit and giggle" stuff he calls exhibitions like the one that will take place today. He probably won't play. After all, on top of everything, he still does have a heart condition. Besides, he'd rather hit a 5-iron than a forehand.

But it's a start. And the clock is running.

"It helps if you stop thinking of yourself as a victim," he said, "and become a messenger."

Arthur Ashe at a glance

Triumphs * Fifteen days after beating Bob Lutz to win the 1968 U.S. Singles Championship, Ashe won the first U.S. Open, defeating Tom Okker. But because Ashe, America's first black men's tennis champion, was an amateur, the first-place prize of $14,000 went to Okker.

* He was ranked No. 1 by the U.S. Tennis Association in December 1968.

* A 10-to-1 underdog, Ashe, then 32, shocked Jimmy Connors and the tennis world to win the 1975 Wimbledon title.

* He helped found the Association of Tennis Professionals tour and later served as president.

* The first black to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team in 1963, Ashe was U.S. captain from 1980 to 1985, leading the team to two titles.

* After becoming the first black to reach the finals of the South African Open, Ashe worked successfully to ban South Africa from the Davis Cup and international tennis circuit competitions.

PD * He was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1985.

Medical history * Dec. 21, 1979 -- Eight days after undergoing quadruple bypass heart surgery, he announced a comeback.

* April 16, 1980 -- Comeback plans were --ed after he suffered a setback, and he announced his retirement from competitive tennis.

* June 21, 1983 -- Underwent double-bypass heart surgery.

* Sept. 16, 1988 -- Ashe was released after a one-week stay in a New York City hospital after taking antibiotics to relieve pressure from a "severe bacterial infection" in his head. The infection put pressure on nerves, causing numbness in his arm.

* April 8, 1992 -- Announced he contracted the AIDS virus from a blood transfusion during heart bypass surgery. He felt forced to announce that he had the virus after a newspaper reporter called him about it.

U.S. Open facts and figures

F:

Where: National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadow, N.Y.

When: Tomorrow through Sept. 13

TV: CBS and USA Cable

Surface: DecoTurf II (Hardcourts).

Defending champions: Stefan Edberg, Monica Seles

Top seeds Men: 1, Jim Courier. 2, Edberg. 3, Pete Sampras. 4, Michael Chang

Women: 1, Seles. 2, Steffi Graf. 3, Martina Navratilova. 4, Gabriela Sabatini

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