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.
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.
Ashe, of course, was given to self-possession as a child, and then had it hardened by his father and coach into carbon-steel control because he was a pioneer, America's first great black male tennis player. Johnson taught him at the age of 11 to accept the handicap of linesmen being against him and instructed him to play any shot that was an inch or two outside the lines as if it were good.
After our Sportsman profile ran, we received a letter from a reader, George L. Miller Jr. of Savannah. It said: "During the late '60s, Ashe played in a grass-court tournament at the Merion Cricket Club outside Philadelphia. At that time, spectators were permitted to watch the first-round matches at courtside. I stood by the net post and could have called every shot. Ashe's opponent was cheating him blind; I had never seen such flagrant calls. I became so upset by this exhibition that I almost spoke up. After one particularly bad display, I happened to catch Ashe's eye. Almost imperceptibly, he shook his head and winked! I've never forgotten that incident."
His grades were good at UCLA, but he was not especially scholarly then, just a quick cram. It was later, while traveling the world, that he read voraciously, talked exhaustively and became a thorough intellect and writer. His three-volume work, A Hard Road to Glory (1988), is the definitive documentation of African-American sporting history. When he learned that I had been a philosophy major and recognized at least a few of the arcane literary references and obscure theologians that cropped up in his stream of consciousness, the Sportsman story was assured of success.
He was a real writer. He enjoyed gnawing on issues, mulling over different ways of thinking about fundamental concerns. After our interviews he asked how long I would take to draft the story. During those days he called at odd times, once while he was racing for a plane in Minneapolis, one writer assisting another with a project that had caught his fancy. "I don't know what you're emphasizing," he would say, "but something just popped into my head apropos of your question about good works and just rewards...." No other subject has ever done that.
On many topics—the question of innocent suffering, to take a timely example—he had no fixed belief. "There are dozens of relevant interpretations," he said. "But no definitive answer. That's one we have to straighten out with the Creator."
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."
Not that he made any claim to moral superiority or even to leading a perfectly defensible life. He picked his spots, leaving causes for later, or for others. Once I asked him about the cigarette money that permeates tennis. Did he know the number of deaths caused by the product he was involved in promoting? "Three hundred thousand a year," he said. "Yes, it's a hell of a problem. I have no defense. I have no answer." It was a difficult topic for a Virginian whose slave forebears picked tobacco, whose family has tobacco leaves emblazoned on its crest. Perhaps that issue would have been next. I looked forward to bugging him about it, because his last words to me, on the phone, were "Let's keep in touch."
He felt from his reading that an AIDS breakthrough would come in about two years. He seemed sure to make it. I remember him waiting to address some foundation executives and wolfing down my fruit salad when I paused to take notes. "You're the one who has the appetite of an AIDS patient," he said, winking.
He was offhand to the end. He had gone into New York Hospital for two weeks in early January for pneumonia, had recovered well and was resting at home. He made his last public appearance on Feb. 2, and the next day became ill with a fever. Pneumonia, unopposed by his AIDS-weakened immune system, progressed rapidly for 48 hours. During his last day he was without his voice because he was on a ventilator, but he scribbled notes to his doctors, to Jeanne and to his lawyer and friend of 25 years, Donald Dell. He died with equanimity at 3:13 in the afternoon, Feb. 6, bearing onward a list of questions he very much wants answered.
"He fought hard, and as in his tennis days, it was always how he played the game," said Jeanne, getting it exactly right.
An autopsy was done. "It is what Arthur Ashe would have wanted," said Dr. Henry Murray. "I'm almost half waiting for him to call me back and ask what it showed."
"I remember," said Dell, "being in the basement of Andy Young's house in Atlanta in 1968, talking about the black movement, and a young guy yelled out, 'Arthur, you've got to be more outspoken, more aggressive.' And he said, 'Jesse, I'm just not arrogant, and I ain't never going to be arrogant. I'm just going to do it my way.' "
Adrift, I find myself staring again at a photograph Jeanne took to accompany the Sportsman profile. Arthur is standing on expensively groomed greensward, helping Camera swing a golf club, perhaps a nine-iron, at a bright-orange golf ball. A foot behind the ball there is a divot, and a foot to one side there is another. Eighteen inches beyond, there is a third. In the clear, hilarious story of those divots is the essence of Ashe. Camera had torn up the turf here and there and then back there, while her father stayed patiently above her, knowing each wild miss was necessary for the child to learn. The effect is that the viewer becomes the child and feels the comfort, the blessing of being so gently guided, so loosely loved.