By Kevin Ware
(November 12, 2013) SAN FRANCISCO – Rarely has the word ‘legacy’ seemed so inadequate when used to describe the life of a legend like tennis great Arthur Ashe. But such was the case last week at the USTA Northern California’s “Beyond the Baseline: USTA Honors the Legacy of Arthur Ashe and Community Tennis” event in San Francisco.
The word legacy often implies a lingering and often benign effect from past actions. If last week was any indication, however, Arthur’s legacy is alive and well with an active impact on youths in communities across the country.
Most know of Arthur’s notable on-court achievements; like the fact that he was the first African-American US Open champion in the Open Era, or that he was also the first (and as of yet, only) African-American gentlemen’s champion at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
What many may not realize is that Arthur was also a visionary who believed in bringing change to the world through sports and education. Through programs like National Junior Tennis & Learning (NJTL), Arthur used tennis as a means to teach kids about sport and much more.
Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Arthur’s widow, put it best: “The purpose of the NJTL wasn’t in teaching kids how to play tennis. It was about getting them to come out and play sports. And then after you got them playing sports you could teach them about life, and life lessons. That was the important lesson of NJTL.”
Since Arthur’s death in 1993, Jeanne has expanded upon the work begun by her late husband with the Arthur Ashe Learning Center (AALC). As stated on their website, the AALC focuses on education, health and wellness, citizenship and self-reliance. By doing so, the AALC attempts to foster “empowerment and leadership in the individual and the community, elevating their sense of purpose and quality of life.”
For her tireless efforts in pursuit of Arthur’s vision, Jeanne was presented the “Beyond the Baseline Icon Award”. Jeanne graciously made it a point to take pictures with all of the honorees as well as the many young people and fans in attendance. It’s clear to anyone who sees her in action that she finds great purpose in the AALC’s work, and does whatever she can to spread Arthur’s philosophy of sports, education, and empowerment.
When asked how it felt to see the positive effects of Arthur’s work on so many lives over the years, including myself, she stated, “It’s amazing. Simply amazing.” Truer words were never spoken on an evening where many of the local honorees spoke of their beginnings in the NJTL, with some going on to run programs. For a program that was started in 1969, the impact of Ashe many within the tennis community is far-reaching.
Likewise, Jeanne was quick to remind us that Arthur was just a man, not a deity, and that his message of personal empowerment through sports was one that could be spread by all of us. She also reminded us that even though Arthur was the first African-American man to achieve Slam success, the most important aspect of his wins was the fact that he was, first and foremost, an American.
“It wasn’t an Australian that won (the US Open), nor a Spaniard, or German, or Englishman. It was an American. Arthur was an American.” Though his presence understandably inspired many African-Americans, Arthur’s legacy goes well beyond race. His aim was global, and his intent was to help as many as possible.
Thankfully for us all, Jeanne is here to make sure that we all continue to do our part in carrying that message forward.
In addition to Moutoussamy-Ashe’s Icon Award, USTA NorCal presented awards to ten Bay Area “Beyond the Baseline” Honorees. The local recipients included Michael Applegate, David Van Brunt, Cassandra Borjon, Henry and Connie Chang, Christine Costamagna, Don Johnson, Barbara Lewis, Michael London, and Susan Pretel.
All were honored for their efforts and commitment on behalf of tennis in their own communities. The evening was hosted by Ted Robinson, “The Voice of the 49ers” and frequent tennis announcer.