I believe sports figures have an obligation to be role models, especially to minority youth. I remain thankful to Arthur Ashe for filling that role for me and not, for example, Charles Barkley, who once said, “I’m not paid to be a role model.”
In August 1974, my family traveled from Cleveland to Miami for vacation. Our parents were born in Miami, so this annual trip was an opportunity for my sisters and me to see our extended family.
What stands out about this particular visit, however, is my father introducing me to tennis. From the moment that I first set foot on a tennis court as an 11-year-old at the Kirk Monroe Park in Coconut Grove, I fell in love with the game and immediately began following Arthur Ashe. At that time, he had won the U.S. and Australian Opens. In addition, he was the first African-American to be selected for the U.S. Davis Cup team.
On July 5, 1975, Ashe became the first African-American male to win the Wimbledon singles title, defeating Jimmy Connors, 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. It was then that I decided that I would become the next Arthur Ashe.
From six through ninth grades and despite my love of reading, I studied minimally and my poor study habits were usually reflected in every report card. Yet, I always made time for tennis. Everything changed one June afternoon in 1977.
I had come home from playing tennis and could hear what sounded like a tornado, which appeared to coming from my bedroom. I asked my sisters what was going on and was enthusiastically advised that my grades had arrived. With a faint hope of optimism, I opened the envelope and saw that my academic accomplishments for the fourth quarter included four F’s, two D’s and one C.
Wearing my Arthur Ashe Head sneakers, I walked upstairs to my room, which was a shrine to him. I honestly did not recognize the woman that had brought me into this world. My mother appeared possessed and had taken down all of my posters and packed up all of my tennis clothes.
My tennis bag was yanked off my shoulder as she screamed, “Austin, you are going to get an education even if I have to beat it into you. This summer there will be no tennis and you will be attending both sessions of summer school.”
With that, she stormed out of my room. I slammed the door behind her, climbed into my bed and began to cry.
After 10 or so minutes, I sat up and noticed on my nightstand a letter from my Grandmother Hopkins. She had also been urging me to excel academically. Unfortunately, her counsel, as did that from others, was going in one ear and out the other.
In addition to her letter, though, was an open letter to minority youth by Ashe, which had recently appeared in the Miami Times, the local African-American newspaper. In a nutshell, he advised all minority youngsters that if we were not “All-Americans” by the 10th or 11th grades, to forget it: we would never make it to the pros.
In his letter, he also explained that he had completed his Bachelor of Arts, explaining the importance of having an education even if you make it to the pros because of the ever-present risk of sustaining a career-ending injury. He said that it was important to have a career to fall back on. Finally, Ashe cautioned that for every hour spent playing sports, between two and three hours are needed in the library.
That letter changed my life. Whereas my parents, grandmother and others had been unable to reach me over a period of four years, my idol did in less than 10 minutes. At that moment, I accepted that I would never play tennis professionally and successfully completed high school, college and graduate school.
I was blessed to meet Ashe on two occasions. I thanked him for the influential role he played in my life. A photo of us taken in 1992 with Center Court behind us, at what would be his final appearance at the U.S. Open, remains one of my most prized possessions.
Today, 43 years after first picking up a tennis racquet, my passion for the game has not changed. I remain grateful to my parents and family for not giving up on me. Indeed, sports idols can serve as positive role models for minority youth. For me, it remains Arthur Ashe.
Cooper is president of Cooper Strategic Affairs, Inc.