I was a tomboy in a family filled with artists, academics and musicians whose idea of sports was croquet (my mother, now in her 80s, remains fiercely unbeatable). In elementary school, I dreamed of joining the Little League, mostly because I coveted the uniforms, but girls were barred back then. They were also excluded from playing soccer, even in my progressive private school. Instead, I was instructed in tennis, and so not surprisingly my first sports hero was Arthur Ashe.
I saw him play at Madison Square Garden on my first date, which was in seventh grade. He was awe-inspiring in his grace. Later, of course, I learned that he was equally graceful in acing some of the toughest challenges in politics. He had grown up in Richmond, Virginia, where reportedly segregation forced his family to commute for miles to avoid upsetting local strictures against playing white opponents. Later, after he swept the major prizes of the sport—despite its elite and white reputation—he went out of his way to coach inner-city kids. When South Africa denied him a visa to play there, he again used his misfortune to shine light on the larger issue of apartheid, eventually getting arrested in protest. In 1975, when he unexpectedly defeated Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon, it was an especially triumphal victory. Typically, he even used his tragic contraction of HIV from a blood transfusion to raise awareness of AIDS. In my mind, he still stands out as an athlete who used his gift and his fame to serve larger causes. I love it that his statue stands on Monument Avenue in Richmond, among those of the Confederate heroes whose racial legacy he helped bury.