Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Arthur Ashe (World AIDS Day tribute)

Twitter is going red today in honor of World AIDS Day. The first post I made at midnight was about one of the most famous victims of the disease, tennis legend Arthur Ashe. Ashe is one of my inspirations based on how he lived his life - a man of deep convictions, quiet strength, thoughtfulness and a fine tennis player who broke barriers for Blacks in tennis.

He made his mark at UCLA helping them win the national championship in 1965. He was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam Tournament. He also championed the start of the ATP, the player's union for men's tennis. He helped the US win the Davis Cup and later coached it

But his biggest mark was how he used his voice. He supported various charities, was a vocal critic of civil rights in America and South Africa's apartheid government after he was banned from a tournament because he was Black.

He was arrested in 1985 for protesting outside the S. African embassy - who cares if he was elected to the Tennis Hall of Fame that year, apartheid was more important to stand against.

"I believe I was destined to do more than hit tennis balls" - Ashe in 1992

He discovered he had AIDS in 1988 as a result of a blood tranfusion during heart surgery years earlier. You can criticize him for keeping it private, but as an intensely private man he had the right to. He did for four years before USA Today pulled one of the biggest punk moves in recent journalism history.

The newspaper threatened to break the story of his illness unless he went public with it. He went ahead and did it but seeing clips of it later was heartbreaking. Here's an intensely private man losing the right to fight his battle in private and decide when to make his cause public - but he turned it into a positive.

1992 was a big year for him. He became a full-on AIDS advocate, going before the UN to advocate for AIDS research. He fought the disease with no fear and used his cause to help others, founding an That was his life's mission - to help others beyond himself.

One of my favorite incidents is how he was arrested that year outside the White House for protesting American treatment of Haitian refugees. He would be dead five months later but it show how deep his convictions ran. The image of him in handcuffs knowing that he was dying says all you need to know about him. Powerful.

After winning Sportsman of the Year in 1992 (a rarity for a retired athlete but a noble gesture for a man who transcended his sport), he died in 1993 of AIDS-related pneumonia. As today winds down, here is someone who you can champion as not a victim of the disease but a reminder to keep fighting like he did and look to a life with purpose.

Quadruple bypass surgery couldnt stop him, AIDS couldnt stop him, racism couldnt stop him. And death for the past 16 years has failed to dim his light as a fine example (to quote another) for his race - the human race.

"I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without human purpose," he said, "without trying to help the poor and unfortunate, without recognizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others."

*Please go read the Sports Illustrated Story on him from 1992 here, a touching testament of his mission*

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