Why, when we knew Arthur Ashe's health was precarious, did the news of his death from pneumonia last Saturday hit us like a ball peen hammer between the eyes? Why did the announcement of this gentle man's passing force even the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd at the Riddick Bowe- Michael Dokes fight into unwonted reflection, never to quite return to that fray?
In part, surely, we reel because, even with AIDS and a history of heart attacks, Ashe didn't seem to be sick. He, of all men, hid things well. His gentility shielded us from appreciating his risk.
In greater part, Ashe's illness had made us take stock. His 49 years of achievement in tennis, philanthropy and human rights led this magazine to name him its Sportsman of the Year for 1992. As all of us reflected on the magnitude of those achievements, it now seems, we were measuring our loss, calculating the blow. Ashe, with his usual luck, is the first SI Sportsman to pass from this green and clamorous world. His life's merit is now felt in its sudden, blindsiding absence.
He lay in state in Virginia's capitol, at his Richmond birthplace, the Richmond where his father taught him to help others and where his coach, Dr. Robert Johnson, taught him his exquisite manners and unshakable calm. I know what Ashe would ask. He would ask that we keep this occasion in perspective.
He was almost comical, last November, in his insistence that he had gotten his life in such order, had provided so well for his wife, Jeanne, and his daughter, Camera, had given such clear direction to his many foundations, that if he were to be taken unexpectedly, "it won't cause disruption." He was not trying to dismiss the emotional cavern he would leave, just straining to be practical. He had done all he could do.
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.
That rational practice shaped his life. He pointedly noted the dearth of trophies in his apartment. You had to hunt to find mementos of his 1968 U.S. Open and 1975 Wimbledon singles championships. "I want to look forward, and trophies draw you back," he said in November. "And I don't want my daughter to think her daddy was just an athlete."
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.