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Thousands Pay Tribute to Ashe : Memorial service: Late tennis champion is honored by friends, politicians and others in New York.

February 13, 1993|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Arthur Ashe was eulogized as a "friend and a freedom fighter" during a poignant memorial service Friday under the Gothic arches of Manhattan's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

Snow fell, coating trees and the caps of policemen who stood shivering in the cold. But inside the great stone church near Columbia University, close friends, political figures, fellow tennis legends and the physician who treated him for AIDS recalled the warmth and uniqueness of his life.

"Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us," said Mayor David N. Dinkins, who stood at Ashe's side last year at the news conference when he confirmed he had AIDS. "He was gracious, righteous, honest, intelligent and committed. He was a credit to his race--the human race."

New York's mayor, an avid tennis player, called Ashe "a remarkable man, a dear friend and a freedom fighter, one of the most decent human beings I have ever known."

About 5,000 mourners broke into applause when Dinkins said that Ashe--the first black man to win Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles--had waged "a dazzling offensive against racism."

Asked Billie Jean King as she looked out from the pulpit: "Why has he touched us so much? Arthur Ashe always accepted responsibility, and throughout his entire life, he was dedicated to truth. He has elevated every single one of us."

She added with a big smile, "Arthur, if anyone is ever going to heaven, you're first in line."

King wore a symbolic purple jacket--the color of Wimbledon, the tournament whose singles titles she and Ashe won in 1975.

"We were two lucky kids with nonexistent forehands," she said.

In tone and in texture, the almost four-hour service was more than a tribute to a life well lived. It was a call to advocacy, to marshal intellectual, spiritual and monetary resources against AIDS, as Ashe had done during the final months of his life.

"I was Arthur Ashe's physician for the last 4 1/2 years," said Henry Murray, an infectious diseases specialist at New York Hospital. "It is important to pause and appreciate (that) Arthur Ashe died of AIDS. If Arthur Ashe could also die of AIDS, any one of us could, too.

"He sent out a message (that) all people infected with AIDS are not victims. Arthur minimized those days when he did not feel well."

Murray told of getting a phone call from Ashe in Florida during which his patient complained about having difficulty breathing. He said that Ashe asked him to hold the phone for a moment. But when a moment stretched to minutes, the physician grew alarmed. Finally, he heard Ashe's voice again.

"I am on the seventh green and I just had to sink my putt," Ashe said.

"He was determined to show people with AIDS should never be marginalized and be discounted," Murray said. "The message Arthur sent out was, if we really do fight, we really can defeat AIDS."

Ashe, 49, died in New York Hospital last Saturday of AIDS-related pneumonia. He and his physicians believe he became infected with the virus when he received blood transfusions during heart surgery in 1983.

Funeral services were held Wednesday in Richmond, Va., where as a child Ashe was barred from many tennis courts because he was black. Thousands waited in darkness and cold for more than two hours to view his body as it lay in state at the Virginia governor's mansion.

At the memorial service here, thousands crowded into the great cathedral in upper Manhattan heard Beethoven's Sixth Symphony and the Boys Choir of Harlem sing "Amazing Grace" and "Precious Lord." Former Mayor John V. Lindsay, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), comedian Alan King, a swarm of sports journalists and tennis players from Ashe's generation were among those attending the tribute.

Ashe's wife, Jeannie, and his 6-year-old daughter, Camera, sat among friends up front.

Flanked by roses, a large portrait of Ashe stood near one pulpit.

"Arthur Ashe was not loud," said Bradley, a former star for the New York Knicks, in his tribute. "He did not boast. Like a good poet, he used silence to advantage.

"He enjoyed life. He could laugh at himself. He was a prudent man, a shy man, a man in a public profession where fame brought financial security. Arthur Ashe was an athlete with perspective.

"He was a champion--for a while the best in the world--who knew the roar at center court would never come again. Arthur filled his days with purpose. He told the truth about racism and self-delusion. He was the real thing. There was no artifice."

Bradley lamented that Ashe had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion as if "it were delivered by a single bullet in a game of Russian roulette. . . . There is no profundity here, just pain. It's as if a part of each of us dies with him."

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