Arthur’s story is one of maximizing great talent, succeeding in the face of obstacles, resolving to actively address unfair obstructions, extending generosity to those in need and accepting the toughest challenge life can give with quiet grace and dignity.
He began playing tennis at the age of 6, which was unique for two reasons, the most obvious one being his young age. The second reason was that tennis was very much a ‘white sport’ at that time – Arthur was black. His father, Arthur Sr., had taken a position working at Brookfield Park in Richmond, Virginia when his son was only four.
Brookfield was a blacks-only playground which included tennis courts. Arthur also played baseball with the kids in the neighborhood. The games would start with all of the boys racing to claim second base, each wanting to play the same position as Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. Arthur’s interests weren’t limited to sports. He had a keen interest in school and learning. An avid reader, he was a straight A student throughout school.
In 1950, the year Arthur turned seven, two significant events occurred in his life. His mother, Mattie, died from complications of surgery. That was also the year Arthur would meet Ronald Charity, a part-time tennis coach who also was one of the best black players in the country. Charity taught him strokes and proper form. His talent had become quite apparent by the time Arthur turned 10 in 1953. It was then that Mr. Charity introduced the boy to Dr. Walter Johnson who coached Althea Gibson, the only African-American competing in world tennis at that time.
Johnson became both his coach and a lifelong mentor. Under Johnson’s guidance, in 1958, Arthur became the first black to play in the Maryland boy’s championships – his first integrated competition. His opportunity to grow as a tennis player was limited because he could only play against other blacks and only on outdoor courts. He was sent to St. Louis to finish his senior year in high school. There he played much better competition and improved to the point that he won several tournaments across the country.
His tennis – and his academics – led to a full scholarship to UCLA, one of the premier programs in college tennis. In 1965 he won the NCAA singles title on the way to UCLA winning the team title. He went on to play for the U.S. Davis Cup team, the first African-American to ever do so. He won the 1968 U.S. Open, another first for a black male. However, as an amateur he couldn’t accept the prize money.
1969 saw another significant occurrence in his life. Arthur had earned the ranking as the number 1 male tennis player in the U.S. However, that wasn’t enough for him to be given a visa to play in the South African Open. That country’s strict policy of Apartheid – segregation – prohibited blacks from competing. The ban triggered Arthur’s role as activist in fighting Apartheid.
He would win the singles championship at the Australian Open in 1970. In 1972, he helped form the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) whose purpose was to represent the interests of professional male tennis players. South Africa finally relented and issued him a visa to play in that country’s 1973 Open. He lost in the finals of singles play but won the doubles title with Tom Okker, the man he had beaten to win the U.S. Open years earlier.
When Arthur got married in 1977, the ceremony was performed by Andrew Young, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Two years later, he received quadruple-bypass surgery after collapsing while giving a tennis clinic. By 1980, chest pains convinced him to retire from competitive tennis.
Ironically, the man who showed so much heart on the courts and in life, had a heart which kept him from playing the sport that he loved. Yet the true measure of his heart was that he didn’t slow down. He went on to establish Actors and Athletes Against Apartheid with Harry Belafonte, He created a tennis center for black youth in Soweto, South Africa. He wrote a three volume book titled A Hard Road to Glory after agreeing to teach a university course on the history of the Black Athlete in Contemporary Society and finding the most current data to be 20 years old.
Accomplishments such as these don’t just happen. They result from the talents, passion and desire of truly fearless brands – and perhaps no one better exemplifies that fact than Arthur Ashe.
Fearless Brands succeed with grace and courage even in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity
The accomplishments and impact of Arthur Ashe are too often overlooked. Many think of him as the skinny, bespectacled tennis pro who won some tournaments in the 1970’s (he retired with 51 tournament titles and a record of 818 wins vs only 260 losses). Yet Arthur Ashe was much more than a world-class athlete. He was a world-class individual.
Ashe had a second heart surgery in 1983, with consequences no one could foresee – he contracted HIV as the result of a blood transfusion during that operation. Arthur Ashe died of AIDS related pneumonia on February 6, 1993. Not yet fifty when he died, he led a life and left a legacy which should be an example to us all. Just before his death, he completed his memoirs Days of Grace.
The year before he died he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He spoke at the U.N. General Assembly on World AIDS Day, imploring all member countries to address AIDS as a global epidemic. Arthur Ashe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, won the Sports Illustrated Man of the Year award and ESPN annually presents the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. The U.S. Open Tennis Championship is now played at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
However, on thing may be more impressive that all of those honors and awards. When Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison in South Africa, he was asked who from the U.S. he would like to come visit, his response was “How about Arthur Ashe?”
There is no better way to share with you the powerful branding concepts which made Arthur Ashe the man he is than through his very own words:
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”
“From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”
“Regardless of how you feel inside, always try to look like a winner. Even if you’re behind, a sustained look of control and confidence can give you a mental edge that results in victory.”
“If you ask ‘Why me?’ where do you stop? If I asked why I had a bad heart, or why I got AIDS do I also have to ask why I won Wimbledon?”
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.“
During a round of golf in the early 1990’s, Arthur Ashe predicted to Mike Lupica that there would soon be a black U.S. president. Lupica replied that he felt Ashe should be that man – to which Ashe responded “I’ve got no regrets, I feel like I’ve left my mark.”
You too can live without regrets. You too can leave your mark. I call it building your personal brand – your fearless brand. Arthur Ashe did exactly that without thinking about branding for even one second. What he did – what you can also do – is embrace your dreams, find your purpose, hone your skills and take the required action.