"Hello, Kurt," he said. "This is Arthur Ashe."
It has been a long time since I picked up the phone and heard that resonant voice, but thinking about it now gives me the same reaction I had on that early evening in the winter of 1983:
The man whose historic 1975 Wimbledon victory changed my life was on the other end of the line offering help.
I was 16 at the time, a pretty good tennis player and among the best of my age in the Pacific Northwest. I was one of a thin slice of African-American juniors who held a national ranking.
My father, a basketball player at Oregon who grew passionate about tennis after college, had taught me the game. But tennis didn't become a passion of my own until Arthur Ashe became the first man of African descent to conquer Wimbledon.
Forty years ago this week, Dad and I watched the Ashe-Jimmy Connors match together on a boxy, brown television in the living room of our Seattle home. My eyes rarely left the screen. Ashe versus Connors on Centre Court was David against Goliath, except that David had a sweet serve and he looked like me, with chocolate skin and an Afro. I wanted to grow up to be just like him.
I'll never forget Connors, the dominant force in tennis, walking onto the court, bold and brash, smirking at the world because he could afford to. Thinking back, I realize that by then I had already internalized a painful truth common to the black experience in America: Some people can smirk at the world and worry little about the consequences. They might even become heralded as rebels and cocky, rail-against-it-all heroes. Although I was still in grade school, it already felt as if the freedom to act like that was one of the entitlements that came with having white skin.
Arthur Ashe didn't smirk. He couldn't afford to, not as isolated as he was, not in the world he'd come to inhabit. His true feelings seemed hidden, held as close to the chest as the snug, blue Davis Cup sweat suit he wore at the final, the one emblazoned with the letters USA. The way I saw it, by virtue of the journey he was taking, in his own steely way he was actually brasher than Connors. Far more.
The final was not a great match, but the way it unfolded offered a lesson. Goliath was slain by canny strategy. With low slices and deft feints. With off-pace balls and short angles. With a deadening pace and then a sudden rush.
Connors had the power. Ashe had the brains to find his way around power. The fact that a black man could think his way to victory was vitally important for me to see.
I have a favorite photo from the awards ceremony: Arthur raising his Wimbledon trophy, smiling gently, comfortable in his skin, possessing a power all his own.
The photo was on my bedroom wall that winter night when my mom walked in, interrupted my homework and told me that I had a telephone call. Come quick, she said, there's someone special on the other end.
"Hello, Kurt. This is Arthur Ashe ..."
My dad and I were in New York for the US Open a few months earlier. We were the Pacific Northwest father-and-son division champions of an unusual tournament: the Equitable Family Tennis Challenge, a nationwide event that culminated with matches held during the Open, on the very courts where the pros played.
I gathered the guts to run into Nick Bollettieri, whose training academy in Florida was getting attention as a factory for young pros. I introduced myself, asked about the academy and told Nick that I'd love to go there one day. Luckily, a teaching pro standing nearby had seen me play at a boys' national championship tournament. As was often the case, I had unleashed a flurry of uncontrolled groundstrokes and suffered a tough loss, but I had also shown enough flashes of shot-making to turn a few heads.
I thanked Nick and started to walk away when the teaching pro whispered something in his ear. Nick's eyes widened.
"Come here, kid," he said. "You go talk to Arthur. Let's find a way to get you down to the academy."
The next day, my dad, always seeking to teach a lesson in independence, made me go alone to meet Arthur Ashe. My legs shook, and I could barely draw a breath as I stood outside a news conference waiting for him to leave the stage. I introduced myself, and we spoke about Nick's idea. Arthur was still famous, only eight years removed from his Wimbledon title and a No. 1 world ranking. I was a gangly teenager, Seattle's high school champion, but not among the nation's elite.
He looked me in the eye and made a promise: "I'm going to do everything I can to help."
A few months after the Open, out of the blue, came the phone call.
Arthur and Nick came up with an arrangement to fund the bulk of my room and board at the Bollettieri Academy. I went there for the last semester of 12th grade. It was only for a few months, but the experience was a revelation. I had never been around so many great players. At national events, they seemed intimidating and unbeatable, but that impression began to change in Florida. Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein were the top dogs in early 1984, but there were plenty of players at Bollettieri's who could give them all they could handle, including a young Andre Agassi, whom I roomed with briefly and took a few sets off in practice. One day, when he was having trouble returning my lefty serve, I looked across the net and saw Andre burst into tears.
Arthur helped other players, too. In the tennis world, especially among black players, he was legendary for finding unobtrusive, behind-the-scenes ways to give others an assist. I wasn't the only one at Bollettieri's whom he backed. Among the others were Brian Flowers, a talented player from New Jersey who became my college teammate, and Martin Blackman, who played at Stanford and who was recently named head of player development at the USTA.
I ended up having a nice run in tennis. I earned a scholarship at Cal Berkeley, where I was the first African-American to be a captain on the men's team. We came close to a national title my senior season. For a couple of years after graduation, I cobbled together a life in the minor leagues, traveling the world, holding world rankings in singles and doubles.
Sadly, other than writing a few letters, I didn't keep in touch with Arthur, but there would always be an important connection. In 1992, while starting a new life in journalism, I received another unforgettable phone call. This one was ominous. It came from my father. Arthur had been reaching out to friends all over the country, including my dad, carefully spreading word that in the coming days he would go public with the startling news that he had contracted AIDS.
I cried that night. I prayed that he would miraculously win the battle against this Goliath. We know, of course, that he did not, but his greatest victory lies in the fact that he was so generous and lived in such a dignified way that he will never be forgotten.
I know I won't forget him.
My wife and I have a son. He is 4 now, and in a few years, I will sit with him and watch a replay of Arthur's monumental 1975 victory. I want my son to see the coolness -- the way a deft touch defeated brash power at the All England Club.
I want my son to understand why his name is Ashe.