“Do you know him, Dad?” I asked my father. It was the 1975 US Open, and my father was using Arthur Ashe’s locker at the West Side Tennis Club. He didn’t say much in reply, and continued getting ready for his match in the senior doubles. I was a little kid, so I didn’t pursue the question further. What didn’t occur to me at that point, and not for many years later, was that the West Side Tennis Club was an exclusive club, but Arthur had a locker. I didn’t know that Ashe had won the first U.S. Open, in 1968, at the West Side, beating Jimmy Connors, whom I loved; I assume that the locker and the membership was given to the winner of the Open.
I met Arthur Ashe several times. The first time was at the US Open at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows in 1979 (the second year in a row the tournament was held at that location). My father introduced Arthur to me and I was stunned.
The first thing I said was that my father used his locker at the West Side. Arthur smiled and laughed and told me that it was okay, and I was relieved. He asked me if I played tennis, and I started to chatter away. Arthur listened to every word, even though the crowd wanted autographs and pictures. I told Ashe I had a bad temper on the court and he looked at me with caring eyes. He understood, and in a serious voice he told me to get a handle on that or it will take over!
That was only the first time I had met him, but it wasn’t the last. Over the next several years, my dad and Ashe saw each other at the Open.
Sometimes I was there, sometimes not. My father’s dream was to have his own tennis court. Our family moved to the King’s Point location, so my dad could build one. To my good fortune, I was able to hit tennis balls with Arthur Ashe there. He didn’t talk about my form, which I thought was pretty good, or my service power. He talked about self-control. “When you get mad, the other guy wins!” he said. Arthur hit with my dad for a short time and with the gigantic basketball legends. I was a bit upset that I hadn’t been told how good of a player I was. The last time I saw Arthur, he came to my hometown. I had a back-door neighbor, Peter Hammond, who was a high-powered advertising guy. I was close with his two kids, so our parents were friendly. One summer afternoon in 1982, the Hammonds had an art exhibit happening at their house, and I had a front-row seat.
A famous artist, whose name I have forgotten, was using famous athletes to create art pieces for an auction to raise money for charity. He had basketball greats Dr. J and John Havlicek bounce balls dipped in paint to form their works, and had Bobby Hull use his hockey stick and puck covered in paint to do the same. I was most excited for Arthur Ashe, who was there with his family. Arthur died too early, having contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, and it is the living who suffer his loss. He was a generous man who didn’t use color, gender, or nationality to judge a person. He made time for everyone and had an undying passion for tennis.
Arthur Ashe’s name adorns the main stadium at the US Open now, and it reminds me of the first time we met. (His locker, really? I had a chance to be part of history and I didn’t ask him one tennis question. OY!)It took me until I was in my thirties to understand to Arthur’s advice about my temper. Somehow he divined in my soul the issue that would vex me in life and gave me ways to deal with it; I just hadn’t been ready to hear them. But Arthur Ashe became a champion by never losing his cool. He became an elder statesman and a prized coach. He was a class act and his legacy will be remembered by many. —