Cool, detached, smooth, unruffled, these are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Arthur Ashe. In 1968, when he made the cover of Life magazine after becoming the first black male to win the US Open, the photo featured Ashe gracefully volleying at net with the words "The Icy Elegance Of Arthur Ashe" sitting behind him on the baseline.
In the accompanying article Ashe even said "What I like best about myself is my demeanor. I'm seldom ruffled."
That calm translated to the tennis court, where Ashe won thirty-three singles titles including the 1970 Australian Open and 1975 Wimbledon, beating the number one player in the world, a feisty Jimmy Connors; and helping the United States to win six Davis Cups as player and coach.
It was tested growing up in a 1950's segregated Richmond, Virginia, where Ashe was not allowed to participate in white tennis tournaments, forcing him to move to St. Louis for his senior year of high school to flourish under the wing of Dr. Walter Johnson, the same person who helped Althea Gibson gain her foothold in the tennis world.
His cool served him well when he became the first African American to win a title in South Africa and when he was arrested at the South African Embassy while protesting apartheid or outside the White House protesting the treatment of Haitian refugees.
It didn't desert him when his first heart attack in 1979 forced him to retire from competitive tennis or when he was told that he had AIDS in 1988, given to him by a bad blood transfusion when he underwent heart surgery in 1983. Instead he became the national chairman of the American Heart Association and formed his own foundation to raise money to fight AIDS.
Deep down sat a soul who had to learn to negotiate his own path between white and black worlds and building his own inner life. He read prolifically, amassing a huge library, visited museums while traveling, especially marveling at the works of Rembrandt and played golf joyfully.
Underneath that still demeanor lay a force committed to using his clout as champion tennis player in helping his race fight for their rights as human beings and to give all greater opportunities to live quality lives.
"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." Which is what makes Arthur Ashe so cool.
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