During the first week of April in 1992, over the course of nearly 12 stressful hours from 3:15 Tuesday afternoon until 2:45 Wednesday morning, Arthur Ashe called more than 30 people. He talked with various public officials, but most of all his inner circle, including his brother Johnnie, other family members, writer Frank Deford, and close friends Charlie Pasarell and Donald Dell.
When Ashe communicated so extensively it usually meant his attentions were aimed at helping others, be it a trip to a controversial place such as South Africa, a political issue Ashe sought to explore, or an event where he intended to make his participation as meaningful as possible.
But in this unprecedented and painful instance, Ashe’s vision pointed towards himself. Earlier that week, a writer and editor from USA Today informed Ashe that they had received a news tip: Did Ashe have AIDS? Ashe did not confirm or deny the rumor, but instead asked for 36 hours to prepare a public statement.
Sadly, while recovering from double-bypass surgery in 1983, Ashe received a blood transfusion and was one of approximately 13,000 people who developed AIDS or became HIV-positive from such a procedure prior to March 1985 (when testing procedures were put in place). Ashe learned this in 1988, following brain surgery that September. For nearly four years, he had kept that information largely private, Ashe’s health status known only by a small circle of trusted friends and colleagues.
Ashe and his wife, Jeanne, hoped to keep it that way. But as he later said, USA Today had “put me in the unenviable position of having to lie if I wanted to protect our privacy. No one should have to make that choice. I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now.”
Ashe makes a stunning announcement on April 8, 1992. (Getty Images)
So it was that Ashe arranged to conduct a press conference on Wednesday, April 8, 1992 at 3:30 in the headquarters of HBO, the television network Ashe had worked for at Wimbledon over the last decade.
Prior to that, more calls came, from President George Bush, New York Mayor Dave Dinkins, Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young.
Deford, Ashe’s collaborator on his 1975 book, Portrait in Motion, worked with Ashe to craft a statement.
From Days of Grace, Ashe’s posthumously published memoir: “As I talked and wrote, I was aware above all of one person’s presence in the apartment: my five-year-old daughter, Camera. I could hardly look at her without thinking of how innocent she was of the import of this coming event, and how in one way or another she was bound to suffer for it.”
Entering the lobby of HBO on 47th Street and the Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, Ashe was accompanied by Jeanne and Deford.
HBO’s 15th floor conference room had been packed for an hour. Alongside an entourage of doctors and friends, Ashe felt like a prizefighter. “I half expected to hear the bell sound for Round One,” he wrote.
“Rumors and half-truths have been floating about, concerning my medical condition since my heart attack on July 31, 1979,” Ashe told the gathered crowd. “I had my first heart bypass operation six months later on December 13, 1979, and a second in June 1983. But beginning with my admittance to New York Hospital for brain surgery in September 1988, some of you heard that I had tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. That is indeed the case.”
The news, of course, shocked the world.
It would have been easy for Ashe, angry at the circumstances that had triggered this announcement, to retreat. But that wasn’t his way.
Ashe, in December 1992, at a World Health Organization meeting. (Getty Images)
With the same activist spirit that he’d brought to so many social issues, Ashe entered the frontlines of the AIDS crisis, be it appearing alongside Dinkins at an AIDS-related press conference, to delivering the commencement address at Harvard Medical School, to the creation of the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS (AAFDA). The latter led to a new event, the Arthur Ashe AIDS Tennis Challenge, held on the grounds of the US Open just prior to the tournament. The inaugural effort raised $114,000 for the AAFDA and has become an annual staple of the US Open, known now as Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day.
His engagement in other realms continued, an active schedule of public appearances, business relationships, board meetings and interviews. As Ashe recalled, “I decided to strike nothing from my schedule but to plunge ahead.”
At the end of that tumultuous 1992, Ashe was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated—only the third tennis player ever.
By late December, though, Ashe’s health took a downward turn. So it was that on Saturday, February 6, 1993, he died at the age of 49.
“If I were to say, ‘God, why me? about the bad things,” said Ashe, “then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.”