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Tennis

Tampa's Blake wants to be like Ashe -- off the court

By KEVIN B. BLACKISTONE
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 7, 2003

In 1990, Arthur Ashe started the Safe Passage Tennis Program to build self-esteem, character and discipline among at-risk children.

In 1992, he started the Arthur Ashe Institute of Urban Health to promote health care in the inner city and the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS.

And since his death on Feb. 6, 1993, an endowment Ashe established for AIDS research has gone on to pay for testing and medical education in the fight against the disease that killed him.

But maybe the most lasting legacy of Arthur Ashe are those he has inspired, like James Blake, the Harlem-reared son of a black salesman and white Englishwoman who today will lead the U.S. Davis Cup team against Croatia in Zagreb.

Blake said he doesn't remember much of Ashe's visit to the New York armory where, as a child, Blake was participating with others in the Harlem Junior Tennis Program.

"I didn't learn enough about him till I got older," Blake, now of Tampa, said last week. "Probably more around the time of his death, I was more awakened to the type of person he was and started really studying up on him. I'm saddened by the fact that it took that to get me to really learn so much about him. Every little bit I've learned makes me more impressed with the type of person he was."

In a society in which we recall star athletes for the amount of points they amassed or the number of rings they won -- or worse, for the number of children fathered out of wedlock or for their drug arrests -- Ashe is remembered for how decently he conducted himself as a member of the human race.

Like taking time in 1985, as coach of the team Blake is playing for this weekend, to walk a picket line at South Africa's embassy in Washington in protest against apartheid.

Like pulling himself out of a hospital bed after a heart attack to demonstrate against his country's imprisonment of Haitian refugees.

Like giving voice to the voiceless, providing hope to the hopeless, showing the way to fortune for the less fortunate.

"He wanted to make things better for us (black youth), and I think he'd be proud of knowing how much we've helped in the communities and the fact that we do care about that," Blake said, referring to himself and the Williams sisters.

"Now, if I could ever have that kind of effect on young males, to get them watching tennis and involved in tennis and just doing something constructive, as opposed to just being out on the street kind of getting into trouble, that's my main goal."

Blake, 23, has a long way to go in emulating Ashe but plenty of time to get there. He aims to graduate from Harvard, as Ashe did from UCLA. His biggest contributions to his community have been as an active fundraiser and instructor for the Harlem Junior Tennis Program, which is still in that old armory.

But Blake said he won't shy away from using his celebrity as a top 25 player and a "Sexiest Male Athlete" title as a soapbox to right what he sees as wrongs.

"I don't know exactly what Tiger Woods' thoughts were on the (Augusta all-male) situation," Blake said. "I would never criticize him for anything without knowing the whole story. ... I would like to see people taking their job a little bit further, as opposed to just playing golf or just playing basketball or football or whatever they are playing.

"(Ashe) had so many issues, it was amazing that he was able to help so much on many different issues as well as, at the same time, be a top-notch athlete."

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