From Sports Illustrated, February 15, 1993
Perhaps the man he was, an independent soul, not given to idolatry, could never fully understand how he could have been taken into so many hearts, so many minds, so many social consciences. Perhaps he could never fully realize what he meant to us. So, now it feels like the thing to do is tell him.
Ashe was the best at leaving every shot behind. He played each stroke as if it were for life and death and then instantly abstained from regret or celebration because there was another shot to play. It was inefficient, even self-destructive to waste energy raging at himself or his opponent or the umpire, even though to do so is wholly human. Too, he learned early that his unnatural cool was often so unsettling that it could be a tactical weapon.
So at his best he was a wonderful paradox. Compared with the antics of his racket-throwing, blaspheming opponents, Ashe's blithe shrugging off of errors and injustices seemed almost lackadaisical, as if he didn't care. Yet his was the truer picture of focus. He cut his losses and moved on, unharmed by them.
Always, in attending to such thorny evils as apartheid, AIDS and the pathology of the American inner city, Ashe was a reasonable man, more disciplined by logic than almost anyone he dealt with. In this was his activist's strength, and in this he was an anomaly, belonging to an earlier time and a simpler, harder ethic.
In sporting deportment Ashe was a contemporary of Joe DiMaggio, just barely tipping his cap to acknowledge the crowd after a home run, or of Jim Brown, calmly handing the ball to the official in the end zone, a trail of writhing would-be tacklers sufficient testimony to his work well done. Ashe was of a time when the core of the American athlete was a sense of fair play. He believed he had control of his own behavior and therefore responsibility for his character.
In this crucial sense he played his game quite opposite to how he lived. He played serve-and-volley tennis, attacking and reacting, hitting or missing on instinct. Yet off the court, even a single second away from furious, frustrating exchanges, his replies were always considered, always balanced. Enlightened disinterest is rare. To find it in a champion athlete is almost beyond what is given to human nature.
In my notebook I find the following passage, mysteriously unused in the Sportsman profile, perhaps because of its heroic tone: "It was his consciousness that stayed with you. When he turned his open, bespectacled, deceptively tranquil gaze upon an event or an argument, it got turned over and over in a blazing tungsten light. But this was an illumination shaded by all the elements of that Ashe consciousness, the capacity of an information junkie to equal the complexity of the world, sort it out, deal with the worst of it, fix it and see the way on."