"It's possible that containing emotions contributed to heart problems," he says. "But I'm certainly not blaming my coach, who insisted we behave." No, Ashe's control was so practical, so right for him, that one suspects he would have come to it himself. Or, without it, come to nothing.
He's sitting with his back to his rattan desk and a view of Manhattan's skyline. On two walls, books mount to the ceiling. "When I researched Hard Road," says Ashe, "I wondered, given the richness of our heritage, why no Ph.D. type had written it. Then I realized that the study of the sociology and history of black sports wasn't thought to be career advancing. The academic glamour, the appeal, was in civil rights. But man, was there power in sports."
Ashe becomes animated when he gets going on the way the first black champions galvanized their people. "The Jack Johnson-Jim Jeffries fight in 1910 was the most-awaited event in black American history," he says happily, enjoying your surprise. "Yes. It took months for word of the Emancipation Proclamation to circulate through the land, but 80 percent of black America knew of that fight, knew why Jim Jeffries unretired from his alfalfa farm—so he could be the Great White Hope. No other event had such immediacy for black Americans. Maybe Joe Louis's second fight against Max Schmeling. Or Smith's and Carlos's black-power gesture at the 1968 Olympics. Or that time with eight seconds left in the 1982 NCAA basketball championship game between Georgetown and North Carolina, when big John Thompson, the Georgetown coach, saw his sophomore guard—what was his name? Fred Brown?—mistake an opposing player for a teammate and throw him the ball. That lost the final for Georgetown, and Thompson walked out on the court and...put his arms around Fred Brown and held him. I don't know what that did to the rest of our populace, but I was on cloud nine."
Here is Ashe, in motion. Fresh from an Aetna Life and Casualty Company board meeting in Hartford, he arrives early for his noon keynote address to a symposium in Manhattan on young African-American males, sponsored by the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers and the Association of Black Foundation Executives. About 50 executives from numerous funds and foundations are listening to a panel of teenage kids, who are speaking in maxims too glib for Ashe's taste: The key to communication is observing.... We have to agree to disagree.... The easy way is to take a gun; the hard way is to fit into society. On cheating in school, one youth says, "Hey, that's this society. You have to create a separate society, between student and teacher, and agree not to cheat in that."
"It's called 'getting over,' " whispers Ashe, unmoved. "It's O.K. to cheat to get what you think you deserve."
He carries a large spiral notebook, and he prints in it often. You see topics and great chains of subheads, and space left to fill in supporting facts. A second panel, of youth-program directors, has taken over from the kids. There are questions from the grant makers about how to design counseling and job programs attractive enough to woo the young from drug dealing, and about whether some kids are damaged beyond all reach.
Ashe raises his hand. "I haven't heard anyone speak of national service," he says, "of taking a group of young men to an Army base and straightening them out." Panelists jump all over him for proposing to remove kids from their communities and for suggesting such authoritarian discipline. "I see it more as a need for job training," Ashe says, "and the need to guarantee a job, so young men can connect their work with a reward."
You feel a little chill for him; his life is running out like sand while he sits in meetings such as this. However, during a break for a box lunch, he assures you that he is such a policy wonk that he feels well occupied. "I've put in quite a bit of time in the last decade trying to be a catalyst in things like this," he says. "And in those 10 years the problems have all gotten worse."
While he is being introduced as the keynote speaker, he is still gulping fruit salad and a chicken sandwich. "My appetite is back," he says. "A new medicine, DDI, did that for me. Of course, one of an AIDS patient's biggest fears is that image of wasting down to nothing. What's come out is that a lot of patients are dying of malnutrition."
He's on. He places his notebook on the podium. "African-American males are disconnected, ostracized and feared," he says. "I've wrestled with that emotionally, because in my youth it was the other way around. Then, we feared them."