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  Slow Train To Eminence

From Sports Illustrated, September 19, 1994

1994 cover The last day tells why. February twilight, bone-cutting cold: Arthur Ashe lying still in a casket. The line of those waiting to say goodbye, 5,469 people long, uncoils down the steps of Virginia's Executive Mansion, past the statue of Stonewall Jackson and through the gate, winding down the street like a serpent freckled black and white. No one complains. The governor stands under a tree describing why Ashe was special, but this day tells better than words. As a young man Ashe left Richmond because of its racism. Here is Richmond now, welcoming him home.

Arthur Ashe took the slow train to eminence. He was the only black man to win the U.S. Open, in 1968, and the only one to win Wimbledon, in 1975. But his athletic talent was not the greatest of his gifts; he was never the tennis genius. Forget Laver, Borg, Tilden: Ashe's three Grand Slam titles in singles (he had another two in doubles) don't even stand up to the records of Sampras, Edberg and Courier. He was no political trailblazer, either. Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and Jackie Robinson all pushed the racial envelope further, faster, than the moderate Ashe, once leading Billie Jean King to crack, "I'm blacker than Arthur."

And yet by the time he died of AIDS-related pneumonia, in 1993, Ashe had achieved a greatness rare for an athlete: He was the first sportsman in memory to elicit the extraordinary tribute of lying in state, and you don't earn that by winning mere games. No, it was what Ashe did after his playing days—how he completed himself—that brought so many out into the Southern winter. Sport is fleeting. Wonderful careers spark, blaze and flame out in a decade; the typical champion spends his remaining 50 years in a kind of endless cast party, full of backslaps and soggy nostalgia. Not Ashe. He knew that his place in history gave him authority, a platform he could either sleep on or speak from for the rest of his days. He made his choice. It made him different.

"His death was a great loss," says Pam Shriver, former president of the Women's Tennis Association. "Tennis needs a spokesperson for those we don't naturally include. He filled that role for a long time." His way. Ashe didn't like being a symbol, because symbols don't breathe, aren't capable of surprise. He was never a mouthpiece for radical blacks, nor was he quite the polite, "good" black spokesman that middle-class whites considered him. He protested apartheid long before doing so was fashionable, was arrested for it in 1985. And he said that handling AIDS paled next to the pain of growing up black in America.

One of his happiest days came in the autumn before he died. Ashe had never felt comfortable with the outing of his disease, with being railroaded into becoming a spokesman in the war on AIDS. He liked to choose his fights. So in September '92 Ashe didn't allow the manner of his dying to decide his life. He took a plane to Washington, D.C., to be arrested again, this time for protesting U.S. immigration policy toward Haitians. "It does wonders for your outlook," Ashe said that night. "I'm sure it released a torrent of endorphins. Marching in a protest is a liberating experience. It's cathartic. It's one of the great moments you can have in your life."

Sport is the American factory for children's heroes because kids play games; they can relate and be awed. But Ashe was the rarer kind of hero, an example of what to do when the playing stops, a role model for adults. He wrote the definitive history of the American black athlete, a three-volume work. He became a more confident voice of conscience. Despite his initial reticence, he became a fighter against AIDS, began a $5 million fund-raising campaign, questioned the lack of government funding for research. "Talking to audiences about AIDS has become in some respects the most important function of my life," Ashe wrote in his memoir Days of Grace.

Ashe was 49 when he died, and it is a measure of his life that he avoided the mere athlete's obituary. Eventually the tennis shrank next to the man; he put his game, all games, into their rightful place. He showed how, given the right application of perspective and brains, sports can be a bully pulpit. He showed how, at career's end, not to be pathetic.

At 22 Ashe said, "It's my life, and a hundred years from now nobody will know or care about it." But the last day tells otherwise.