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March 02, 2001|LARRY STEWART

What: "SportsCentury: Arthur Ashe"

Where: ESPN Classic, tonight, 5 and 8

This profile of Arthur Ashe, first televised by ESPN Classic Feb. 19, shows why, besides being a tennis star, he was considered to be one of the most important sports figures of the 20th century. It also shows why he was considered so infinitely good and pure.

Adversity followed Ashe throughout his life. He lost his mother at a young age. Heart trouble forced him to retire from competitive tennis at 36. During heart bypass surgery in 1983, a transfusion he received contained tainted blood with the HIV virus. He died of AIDS at 49 in 1993.

During the turbulent late 1960s and at the height of racial tension in this country, black militants tried to recruit Ashe. But he preferred a tamer, more gradual approach to race relations. He is shown at the time saying, "Militants would rather lose gallantly than win practically. I prefer to win practically."

Ashe, from Richmond, Va., attended UCLA on a tennis scholarship. In 1961, the UCLA team, except for Ashe, was invited to play at the Balboa Club. It is pointed out the UCLA coach told Ashe that the team would protest if that's what Ashe wanted. But that was not what he wanted. Omitted is the fact that the UCLA coach was the legendary J.D. Morgan.

Ashe's triumphs on the tennis court, including his memorable victory over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975, are well chronicled, and so is Ashe's role in the fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post says, "Nelson Mandela said that one of the people he wanted to meet when he was released from incarceration was Arthur Ashe. What else needs to be said? What better endorsement can there be?"

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