The board of directors of the United States Tennis Association does the right thing with its new stadium at the U.S. Open after all. The place will be called Arthur Ashe Stadium. It is a decision that does not just honor the great Arthur Ashe but honors his sport as well, and this city.
Arthur Ashe loved New York from the start, from the first summer for him at the U.S. championships, when he was a skinny 16-year-old kid from Richmond, a black kid in a white sport, his black eyeglasses thicker than he was, up here to play Rod Laver in the first round at Forest Hills. It was the summer of 1959 and he stayed with his Aunt Kulah on 114th St., just east of Morningside Ave. He lost to Laver, but it was the beginning of it all for him, not just on the stage in tennis but in what became a grand American life.
Nearly 40 years later, the Open will name a ballpark after him. We do not get many real heroes out of sports. Arthur Ashe was one, all the way until AIDS, acquired in a blood transfusion following heart surgery in 1983, finally killed him 10 years later.
The USTA will make the official announcement imminently. So it does not matter that the USTA board had originally rejected the idea of Ashe Stadium, thinking it might want to sell the name of the stadium to some corporate sponsor down the road. There was another vote in Atlanta over the weekend. This time the memory of Arthur Ashe won going away.
In the year of Jackie Robinson, in the year when baseball and New York and America celebrate the 50th anniversary of Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, tennis honors Ashe, a spiritual heir to Robinson in all the best ways, a Richmond kid who once fought for Robinson's No. 42 in Little League.
"Other guys used to run for pitcher or center field or shortstop," Ashe told me once. "I always ran for second base. I wanted to be Robinson."
He was Robinson in his sport, the way the great Althea Gibson was in women's tennis. He won the U.S. title and then Wimbledon in 1975, when he wasn't supposed to have a chance against Jimmy Connors. He was a Davis Cup champion as a player and as a captain. He was instrumental in the formation of this country's Junior Tennis Association, which has opened the sport to kids who might never have had a chance to go anywhere near tennis. And there was elegant writing and important political causes from here to South Africa, a lifetime of curiosity and passion and good works.
He came off the public courts of Richmond and became known to the world. When Nelson Mandela came to New York and was introduced to Ashe, Mandela embraced him and said, "My brother."
Now Ashe will be honored in the middle of what is a public tennis park in Queens for all of the year when the U.S. Open is not in town. The new stadium will be right across from the old one, originally dedicated in the name of Louis Armstrong, who once lived close to the National Tennis Center.
So there is this one corner of the sport, in Queens, New York, where tennis honors both Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong, old Pops himself. That is a very fine, cool neighborhood indeed.
Arthur Ashe attended his last Open in 1992. He had six months to live. The day before the Open began, the stadium was turned over to his Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova were there, and John McEnroe and Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, hitting the ball around on national television, laughing in the sun, raising money for the Ashe Foundation. Mostly they were there because Ashe asked them to be there.
"I'm no hero," he said that morning, getting ready to make the ride to a big day in tennis that he once made from 114th St. He had been talking about the fight against AIDS. There was always a new fight. "I'm not a victim, I'm a messenger."
The message was always about the best in people. The USTA finally got the message. The new stadium at the Open now becomes one of the best places in sports, if in name only. Ashe Stadium. As old Pops used to say: Oh yeah.