LOS ANGELES — `CLASS" is a noun in Webster's Dictionary. In sports, however, class is often considered an adjective.
Tennis great Arthur Ashe, who died last weekend in New York, had that particular quality in abundance. Even as a black kid barred from public courts, he could draw on a large reservoir of inner strength; his father was chiefly responsible for Ashe's keen sense of values. It was his father who told him to respect everyone, "whether they respect you or not."
Ashe, a tennis Hall of Famer, was the consummate professional. He was also personable, a UCLA graduate, an ex-Army officer, a former member and captain of US Davis Cup teams, 1968 US Open winner, and Wimbledon champion in 1975. The man Ashe wasn't supposed to beat at Wimbledon was Jimmy Connors, the No. 1-ranked tennis player in the world at the time.
It was often said of Ashe that if all blacks were like Arthur, there would be no racial problems. As someone later pointed out, that missed the point: There would be no world problems, period, if all people were like Arthur Ashe.
I can still remember sitting poolside, many years ago in Hawaii, and interviewing Ashe. He was telling me how he attributed his success to being a "generalist."
"Pro tennis is such a highly skilled sport that specialists have never done well in it," Ashe explained. "A man can have an overpowering serve, but if the rest of his game isn't at the pro level, he's not going to win very often.
"I've got a better-than-average serve," Ashe continued, "and I often win points with it. But I don't win tournaments with it. I win against the best only when I've got my entire game working." "Generalist" describes all the great players, he said - if they also have the gift of "prolonged concentration."
Ashe was so low-key in a match that anyone watching him might have read his cool as an I-don't-care attitude.
"Maybe it looks like that to some people," Ashe said, "but it's not like that at all. My theory is that when a person gets angry at himself, he has difficulty controlling what he's doing.
"So I never allow myself to get upset with my opponent or what I think is an improper line call. Of course, I care what is happening on the court. But I've simply found that things work better for me if I just forget my immediate problem and go on to the next point."
Arthur Ashe became famous and wealthy, but he grew up in a black neighborhood in Richmond, Va., in the 1940s and '50s. He went to black schools, drank from "colored only" water fountains, and rode in the back of city buses. Ashe played his first tennis at age 6 with a borrowed racket and at 23 was still so thin (147 pounds on a six-foot frame) that he could shower in a rifle barrel.