Legacy of Ashe Receives a Breath of New Life
By WILLIAM C. RHODEN
10 February 2007
The New York Times
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved.
CORRECTED BY THE NEW YORK TIMES Tue Feb 13 2007
''Time flies,'' Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe said earlier this week.
I didn't realize that her husband, Arthur Ashe Jr., had died 14 years ago. It seemed like yesterday I was speaking with Arthur about some project or some incident involving an athlete. It seemed like yesterday when hundreds sat in the cavernous Cathedral of St. John the Divine, listening to a parade of mourners pay tribute to Ashe, who died at 49 on Feb. 6, 1993, after a battle with AIDS.
''It's really, really hard to believe myself,'' Moutoussamy-Ashe said. ''Time is just flying by.''
Thanks to technology -- and to Ashe's widow -- time stands still, and we can remember Ashe the tennis champion, the humanitarian, the educator. Earlier this week, Moutoussamy-Ashe used the anniversary of Ashe's death to unveil a fantastic, interactive Web site, arthurashe.org, designed to commemorate her husband's spirit. For those who knew him, the site offers familiar images, though some of the material has never been released. More than that, it is designed to introduce younger generations to core values that shaped Ashe's life: education, responsibility, leadership.
The Web site is the result of a 10-year journey, which finally came to fruition with the help of Merrill Lynch, that succeeds in making Ashe come alive. We hear his words and his perspectives on topics as diverse as education, protest and AIDS. He offers this gem on tennis:
''There are lessons that one can learn out there all by yourself on the tennis court: There are no substitutions, no time outs and no coaches. You have to really learn to depend upon yourself, you have to learn to become self sufficient. You have to learn how to make instantaneous decisions that are going to affect the result of the rest of that match. Life is like that.''
Keeping history alive and bringing history to life are difficult tasks. What seems so intense to one generation often seems like fiction to another. Earlier this week, I was on a television program with Tommie Smith, the great sprinter who raised a clenched fist along with John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.
Earlier that year, Ashe had become the first African-American to win a major tennis title when he won the United States Open.
Some of the producers and directors on the show had no idea who Smith was. Fans may be more familiar with Ashe because the stadium where the United States Open finals are played is named in his honor.
Moutoussamy-Ashe's goal is to make the Web site an engaging way for people, especially young people, to learn about what her husband stood for.
''I want to bring him to life on those computers so he's not just bricks and mortar,'' she said.
Moutoussamy-Ashe has larger plans for the site: She wants to bring Ashe to life by way of animation. ''I can see children playing interactive games with him,'' she said. ''It'll be a safe place for them to come, for them to understand the important aspects of his legacy about education and learning, and doing it by simulating his voice and simulating the footage that I have, making him like an animated character but doing it with his voice. It's a way of engaging the things I love to do with helping the legacy.
''People so appreciated remembering him, not just by reading things or seeing things, but hearing his voice about his own story and talking about his issues.''
Beyond the historical importance of Ashe's Web site, what I find compelling is his wife's determination to define Ashe's life and legacy rather than leave it to others. More athletes should think about doing this while they are playing, and many have, especially at a time when athletes are increasingly complaining about their portrayal in the news media.
''That's what's so compelling to me about this site,'' she said. ''I'm not allowing anyone else to tell it. It's Arthur telling the story. Arthur was very accessible, and there's a lot of information in various places. I want to put it in once place and let people really learn about him; a virtual museum.''
I can't imagine the burden of being the widow of an American icon, especially when the icon died at a relatively young age. In some ways, the survivor becomes married to a legacy that is incomplete. Jackie Robinson was 53 when he died; Martin Luther King Jr. was only 39; Ashe was 49.
There are 24 groups and organizations that operate under the banner of Ashe's name, and each wants a piece of his widow's time. In this respect, arthurashe.org is liberating for Moutoussamy-Ashe, an accomplished photographer who has published four books of photography.
''I had for so long been involved with all of the legacy groups, and I really am not that comfortable with appearances and interviews,'' she said. ''This has really freed me up, and it's given me a form of expressing Arthur's legacy and my admiration of it.''
Arthur Ashe fit much of the criteria for what a great athlete should be. He won championships. He used his visibility to fight for causes. He educated, writing a three-volume history, ''Hard Road to Glory,'' when he discovered while preparing to teach a course that no comprehensive history of African-American athletes existed.
He marched. He picketed. He protested. He quickly became a spokesman for the fight against the disease.
Arthur died 14 years ago. Thankfully, his wife has found a way to keep his memory -- and his legacy -- in play.
Arthur Ashe Jr. lives.
Photos: Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe recently unveiled an interactive Web site to honor the memory of her husband. (pg. D1); Arthur Ashe, the first African-American to win at Wimbledon, used his visibility to fight for causes. He died in 1993 after a battle with AIDS. (Photo by Associated Press, 1975)(pg. D2)
The Sports of The Times column on Saturday, about efforts by Arthur Ashe Jr.'s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, to honor his memory, referred incorrectly to one of his tennis accomplishments. In 1968, Ashe became the first African-American man to win a major tennis title, not the first African-American. Althea Gibson was the first over all, in 1956.