Fans of the ESPY Awards are familiar with the Arthur Ashe Award, which is handed out to athletes who exhibit courage in the face of adversity. Tonight, the award will be granted to the family of Zaevion Dobson, who died while trying to shield three underage girls from gunfire in Knoxville, Tennessee, late last year. But just who was Arthur Ashe? Why was the award created in his name?
Read on to find out.
1. He Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton
Ashe was born in Richmond, Virginia, on July 10, 1943. In 1950, when he was just 7-years-old, his mother died from pregnancy complications at age 27. He and his younger brother, Johnnie, who is five years younger than Ashe, were subsequently raised by their father, who made money working as a handyman and caretaker-Special Policeman for the town’s recreation department.
On June 20, 1993, Ashe was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton. Eight years prior, the tennis superstar was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. But his talents didn’t end there: he dabbled in writing, and even won a Sports Emmy for co-authoring the documentary, ‘A Hard Road to Glory’ with writer, producer, and author George Polivka.
2. He Was the First Black Man to be Ranked No. 1 in the World
Ashe is celebrated for his many accomplishments, one of which is that he’s the only black man to ever win the singles title at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. He is also the fist black man to be ranked No. 1 in the world.
In 1951, about a year after his mother’s death, Ashe picked up his first racket. He was seven at the time, and had been bitten by the tennis bug– he spent hours practicing at Richmond’s largest black-only public playground. ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, which is handed out each year at the ESPYS, is not only awarded to athletes– last year, Caitlyn Jenner accepted the accolade and discussed her transition and the acceptance of other transgender individuals.
3. He Died of AIDS
On February 6, 1993, Ashe died of complications from AIDS, at age 49. The tennis star contracted the disease in 1988, from what is believed to be a tainted blood transfusion during bypass surgery. While Ashe was quiet about his condition for some time, he publicly announced the news in April 1992, when a newspaper threatened to run an article about the illness. Before the article’s release, he decided to hold a news conference to make the announcement.
Ashe was forced to retire from tennis due to heart problems, but before his retirement, the tennis pro achieved many successes– one of which was co-founding the Association of Tennis Professionals in 1972.
4. He Attended UCLA on a Full Scholarship
Ashe attended Maggie L. Walker High School. Until 1960, the athlete was not allowed to play Caucasian youths in the segregated city of Richmond, Virginia. Before the start of his senior year, Ashe was offered the opportunity to play at Sumner High School, where he could compete more freely. He spent the year living with Richard Hudlin, a teacher and tennis coach who initially extended the offer.
In December 1960, Ashe became the first African-American to win the National Junior Indoor tennis title. In 1963, he was awarded a tennis scholarship to UCLA, where he was coached by J.D. Morgan. At university, Ashe pursued a degree in business administration, and was a member of ROTC. After graduating, he joined the US Army, and shortly after, he worked as a data processor for the US Military Academy at West Point.
5. He Was Known for His Commitment to Charity and Humanitarian Work
The History Channel writes, “He established tennis programs for inner-city children and campaigned against apartheid in South Africa. Following his retirement, Ashe was a TV sports commentator and columnist and wrote a 3-volume book, ‘A Hard Road to Glory,’ about black athletes.”
After announcing his illness, Ashe created the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS and the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. The homepage for Ashe’s website reads,
He was much more than an athlete… His commitment to social justice, health and humanitarian issues left a mark on the world as indelible as his tennis was on the court. This site is dedicated to providing a unique multimedia resource for understanding and promoting the legacy and values embodied in the life and work of Arthur Ashe as a conscience leader, humanitarian, educator and athlete.