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Ashe lauded for service on, off court


RICHMOND, Va. -- The images were indelible:

The 6-year-old girl named Camera, a white ribbon in her hair, being led by a friend through the quiet sports arena as mourners paid homage to her father.

A dreadlocked tennis star from France, Yannick Noah, swathed in black leather, hands locked together in prayer, head bowed, tears streaming down his cheeks.

And the mahogany coffin, draped with red roses and baby's breath and topped by two white paper doves tied together with a red ribbon, the symbol of the fight against AIDS.

Yesterday, in a gymnasium that bears his name, 6,000 mourners remembered Arthur Ashe as a tennis champion who transcended sports, an American who shattered racial and social barriers at home and abroad and a native son who was returned home after dying of AIDS-related pneumonia at age 49.

But his life and times could not be so easily explained or celebrated during three hours of music, poetry and remembrance.

The images spoke loudest, of course. And yet speaker after speaker -- 23 in all, including six pastors, two mayors, a governor, and a presidential representative -- tried to sum up a man who melded the worlds of the athletic, the political and the spiritual.

There was talk of winning Wimbledon and freeing South Africa, of claiming a U.S. Open title and demanding that U.S. borders be opened to Haitian refugees, of serving aces and reading Scripture.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Ashe to other athletic pioneers, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, and declared: "His dignity was non-negotiable."

U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown spoke of his admiration for Ashe: "A beautiful black man in beautiful white clothes playing a beautiful and utterly white game -- and winning."

The mayor of New York, David Dinkins, wiped his brow and declared with passion and a touch of anger: "In our age of hype and handlers, the coinage of greatness has been devalued, but let me say it as plain as I can: Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us."

And La Chandra and David Harris Jr., a niece and nephew of Ashe's, stood together and said: "Gone too soon. We love you."

U.S. senators Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Chuck Robb (D-Va.) were there. So were more than a dozen of Ashe's tennis contemporaries, including his U.S. Davis Cup teammates and Rod Laver, the last man to gain the Grand Slam.

The ceremony began with a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, voice-raising rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" and ended with the lilting melody of "I'll Fly Away."

Somehow, a utilitarian gym with harsh lighting and pipes painted lime green was transformed into a house of worship. Blue curtains and rugs hid baskets and an indoor track. Flowerpots lined the aisles. An American flag hung above the speaker's podium.

And there was the crowd, too, a mix of celebrities and plain old Richmond, gathered to mourn a hero.

Through it all, Ashe's widow, Jeanne, sat composed, surrounded by family -- including their daughter, Camera -- and friends.

Yet this was a ceremony that brought tears to even the hardest of men.

Stan Smith, composed and earnest while playing with Ashe in the Davis Cup, cried when he said, "I'm proud to be his friend and . . . he's my hero."

Donald Dell, Ashe's agent, fighting back tears, said: "Arthur is probably chuckling and wondering what is happening. Why is this such a big deal?"

But clearly there was a chord that Ashe struck, not just with his hometown, but also with the country.

The crowd cheered when Ashe was posthumously presented with the Olympic Order by Anita DeFrantz, a U.S. representative to the International Olympic Committee.

There were cheers again when a letter from President Clinton was read.

It was left to Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to place Ashe's life in perspective.

With a constant refrain of "Why, oh, Lord, why?" Young spoke not of Ashe's athletic accomplishments, but of his commitment to end apartheid in South Africa, of his caring for others, of his long, final fight against AIDS.

And then, he told a story. After hearing of Ashe's death, Young attempted to call the family's apartment in New York. What he heard was Ashe's voice on an answering machine: "I'm not in right now, but if you leave a message, I'll get back to you."

"Arthur is not going anywhere," Young said. "He is just back on the road. And when you dial a number and leave a word, leave a message. He'll get back to you."

The crowd roared.

Finally, the service closed and the family headed to Woodland Cemetery, a tiny dot of a place in northern Richmond. There, Ashe was buried, next to his mother, Mattie.

"Arthur Ashe," said the Rev. Jeff Rogers. "No. 1."

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