There is something to be said about quiet strength. This was Arthur Ashe’s calling card. He achieved the greatest of heights without making a lot of noise. He didn’t have a reality show to promote himself. He didn’t need one. His deeds speak for themselves. He was so much more than a Hall of Fame tennis player.
But he had a lot of accomplishments in that arena. He became the first black person to be named to the United States Davis Cup team (Aug. 1, 1963). He racked up a stupendous 818-260 career record. He achieved the No. 1 ranking in the world (1968).
However, there was a lot more to the man than being the first (and only) black man to win a Wimbledon title (July 5, 1975). He was a greater presence outside of the courts than the tennis player who made history by becoming the first African American to take home a Australian Open championship (Jan. 26, 1970). When you talk about history, Ashe made history when he stepped on the tennis courts.
And he did it with grace. Ashe then had the nerve to use his platform as being the top tennis player in the world into a lifetime mission to upgrade human and civil rights. He gave others hope. Coming from segregated Richmond, Virginia, Ashe handled the issue of race, especially for a black athlete playing in a predominantly white sport, with the fine articulation that would define him as a person.
When I thought of Ashe growing up, I would see images of this bespectacled, Afro-wearing consummate professional tennis player whom I could never associate with as a person fighting for equality. But when you become the first in achieving something as an African American, especially considering the time when Ashe played, conquering each step while going up the mountain was considered to be a battle.
For Ashe, it was his greatest challenge, which he detailed excellently with blunt force in his memoir, “Days of Grace.”
“Being black is the greatest burden I’ve ever had to bear,” Ashe says in the book. Those words jumped off the pages when I read them. I re-read them. Wow! That’s all I could say. It put things into perspective for me. Here was this world renowned, famous athlete making an open condemnation of racism and what it felt like being black.
Arthur Ashe is my hero. He gave identification to a greater societal issue of what many African Americans felt then and now. No one will know our pain. No one will know our struggle. Ashe’s remarks are so powerful because what it says is that despite our individual successes, the evil known as racism is always a reminder to black people that the burden of race is something we carry around simply because of the color of our skin.
Basketball Hall of Fame player Charles Barkley once said he didn’t get paid to be a role model as a professional athlete. I beg to differ, especially when a sports organization invests millions of dollars into you and expect to to tow the company like of values and moral ethics. When you consider the climate today facing today’s athletes, whether amateur or professional, being a role model comes with the territory of notoriety and fame, whether Barkley ignorantly thinks so or not.
Just ask Ray Rice. Better yet, try getting that opinion from WNBA star Brittany Griner, U.S. soccer player Hope Solo or NFler Ray McDonald. Ashe knew, understood and carried himself in a way would neither embarrass himself or those closely tied to him-personally and professionally.
Ashe is someone whose life we should learn from and emulate. He gave a little kid like myself something to look up to and aspire to be. Ashe showed me that you don’t have to be loud to be great. Dignity was Ashe’s lifeline to other people.
It reached far and wide. From his work in the HIV/AIDS community to doing a full-blown takedown on the many racial barriers this country continues to struggle with, Ashe triumphed where others failed. What I remember most about Ashe was the way how he went about doing things. He didn’t toot his own horn to make himself feel good. Instead, he chose to blow the horn of others.
His agenda in life was to help and make a difference in other people lives. He was a role model of change. Ashe’s “A Hard Road to Glory” book series, which channels the historical exploits of black athletes, personified this attribution.
He battled apartheid in South Africa with the veil of class that had always followed him. He was class personified. His subtle courage to made the world a better place. is why Ashe achieved to heights without the novelty of being at the center of a reality show. He championed the rights and human dignity of others without a whole lot of fanfare.
We can all take a page from Ashe’s handbook of humaneness and become a better society for it. God bless you, Arthur Ashe.