Through it all he kept one eye, one pining eye, on South Africa. And when he read that more than a hundred unarmed schoolchildren had been shot dead by the police in the Soweto student riots that began on June 16, 1976, the realist in Ashe at last acknowledged that South Africa was different. "South Africa," he says, "was testing the credibility of Western civilization. If you didn't come out against the most corrupt system imaginable, you couldn't look yourself in the eye." Then, in 1983, Ashe and Harry Belafonte cochaired Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid, and Ashe did his damnedest to encourage the embargo of all sporting contact with South Africa.
Pinched by these and other sanctions, South African President Frederik de Klerk finally began to enact changes, dropping the racist pass laws, integrating parks and beaches and stadiums, holding talks with the African National Congress and releasing Mandela. When Mandela, 27 years a political prisoner, emerged and was asked whom in the U.S. he wished to have visit, he said, How about Arthur Ashe?
Ashe always embodied good sportsmanship on the playing field. But if sportsmanship is also an athlete's ability to shift from being a selfish competitor to being a useful member of society, then Ashe's sportsmanship is unequaled. His gradual harvest has grown into a mountain of good.
If sportsmanship is also the ability to transform loss into fresh, competitive, creative fire, then Ashe's has been unparalleled, and his greatest transformation is his newest. For, last April, with his stunning knack for staying topical, he revealed that he suffers from the scourge of our age. He has AIDS, having almost certainly contracted the virus that causes it from a blood transfusion after a second bypass operation, in 1983.
Ashe was angry at being forced to tell the public that he has the disease before he was ready, before his daughter was old enough to understand fully. The mask cracked, and he fought back tears when making his statement to the press. But then he controlled his emotion and used its force to create the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which in three months raised about $500,000 toward its goal of $5 million by the end of 1993. After Ashe and the U.S. Tennis Association staged a day of exhibitions for his foundation the day before the U.S. Open, John McEnroe said it was the first time he could remember the top players working together on anything.
So we celebrate Arthur Ashe as our Sportsman of the Year, not because he is a good victim but because of his good works and because of the redefining constancy with which he has pursued them. We rejoice in his battered-from-both-sides balance, his scholarly civility and his sense, even now, especially now, of perspective.
Guided by that, if you don't mind, let us skip the black-tie dinner. Ashe goes to hundreds of those in his fund-raising, consciousness-raising labors. No, it seems far more considerate to drop by his New York City apartment, sip a cup of tea and ask him to reexamine, in the light of that deceptively tranquil gaze, the experiences that have formed such a benefactor.
Arthur Ashe Jr. has family. He can trace his lineage back 10 generations on his father's side, to a woman who in 1735 was brought from West Africa to Yorktown, Va., by the slave ship Doddington and who was traded for tobacco. His father's line also reaches back to a man owned by Samuel Ashe, an early governor of North Carolina. The family has reunions that draw 300 relatives. The family crest is a broken chain amid clusters of tobacco leaves.
Ashe, 49, is the elder son of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham of Richmond, the capital of the old Confederacy. Mattie passed to her son her fineness of feature, taught him to read by the time he was four and died when he was six from complications related to a toxemic pregnancy. Her last words to her husband were, "If anything should happen to me, Arthur, the boys are yours. I didn't born the children for your mother, and I didn't born them for mine. I born the children for you."
So Arthur Sr. raised Arthur Jr. and his brother, Johnnie, five years younger, to be helpful and to behave. Arthur Sr. was a special policeman in Richmond's recreation department, a disciplinarian but also an energetic handyman and outdoorsman. Arthur Jr., obedient, shy and observant, went with his father when he delivered old clothes, food and wood to poor families. "He fixed things for people," says Ashe. "He was great with his hands, with tools."