tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Arthur Ashe was a First Class role model

The U.S. Postal Service is now producing a 37-cent stamp featuring tennis great Arthur Ashe. The Postal Service unveiled the stamp, fittingly, at the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament in New York, earlier this week.

Ashe won the U.S. Open in 1968; seven years later he won a Wimbledon championship. He suffered a heart attack in 1979, which ended his serious playing days, but he served as the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup Team in the 1980s. In 1992, Sports Illustrated magazine named him Sportsman of the Year. He died in February of 1993.

During Ashe’s childhood days of the 1940s, Arthur Ashe, Sr., taught him to respect everyone. That came at a time when Ashe and many blacks growing up in the South were the object of frequent disrespect.

Ashe, Sr., was the supervisor of a park in Richmond, Va. The park had a tennis court and a swimming pool, although the city ordered Ashe to drain the pool, lest blacks – “Negroes” – swim in the same water as whites.

Ashe, Jr., learned to play tennis in the park his father supervised. When he was 10, he came under the tutelage of Dr. Robert W. Johnson, who taught him to succeed in the white tennis world.

“We were taught when you walked onto the court, you have to be impeccable in your appearance,” Ashe told author Herbert Warren Wind for his book Game, Set and Match. “When we got on the court in our junior days, we didn’t have linesmen. Umpires, that’s all. Every close call would go to your opponent so they could never say you cheated. When you changed sides … if your opponent happened to be serving next, you were to pick up every ball and hand them to your opponent. In fact, you were to be the most courteous guy – you know, faultless person – one could find.”

Playing for UCLA, Ashe went on to win the NCAA title in 1961; professional success followed.

I had the good fortune of meeting Arthur Ashe in November of 1984 when I was a sportswriter for the Press/Sun-Bulletin newspaper in Binghamton, N.Y. Ashe and other athletes were traveling around the state on behalf of a program called “Be New York Fit.” By that point, Ashe had devoted himself to bringing tennis to people who might not typically think of it as an option for themselves.

“Blacks do well in sports that are highly social, the team sports,” Ashe told a group of reporters that included me. “Tennis is not really a team sport. You’re out there all by yourself…What we have to do is make the sport more available and accessible to the public school system, so not only blacks will benefit, but people in general who come from families whose income is not more than $25,000 a year. There’s no reason why the best teachers should be stuck in the elite, isolated enclave of private clubs.”

Ashe always felt that way. After playing the South African Open in 1973, Ashe set up a foundation for non-white South African players. It provided money, clothes and equipment to players who showed promise at the junior level.

Three years earlier, he had helped to set up the National Junior Tennis League, which provided free lessons to beginners all over the country. His original idea was to limit the program to urban neighborhood kids, but ultimately decided it should include all youths interested in learning.

I wrote an article about Ashe that appeared in the Nov. 8, 1984 Binghamton Press/Sun-Bulletin. I have repeated much of that article in this essay.

When I was a kid, I idolized many sports figures, including several tennis players. Many of those heroes went on to disappoint. They proved themselves to be selfish or unsavory in a variety of ways. But not Arthur Ashe. He was a true gentleman, on and off the court, long after his professional playing days were over. He died way too soon, and I miss him. But I will never forget him.

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