STORY OF FRIENDSHIP: Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith by Bob Briner

Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith by Bob Briner

From Sheltering Trees

It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.  —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Rarely in the annals of sports has there been one single head-to-head rivalry that carried the entire sport to new heights as did the scintillating competition between Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith in the 1960s and ’70s.  It was so even, so compelling, and was played with such intensity and grace that it created and fueled the biggest boom the sport has ever known.  It even had New York taxi drivers talking about tennis – something they never did before.

Without tennis, or another of God’s providences, it is very unlikely that Arthur and Stan would have even met.  Arthur was from a gritty neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown Richmond, Virginia, in the then still segregated South, and Stan was the ultimate California golden boy.  They lived a continent apart and light-years away in lifestyles.  Tennis brought them together, and all kinds of sparks flew.

Because of the way tennis works, they played against each other almost constantly – that is, in the events that were desegregated, allowing Arthur to play.  They were almost equal in ability – Arthur perhaps a little quicker, Stan perhaps a little more powerful.  It was impossible to tell who would win a match between them on a given day.  It was a great rivalry.  And they were great friends.

In those days, Arthur had a very low impression of Christianity.  He felt that many of the people who called themselves Christians were the same ones who kept him from playing in many of the events important to his tennis career.  In a memorable quote in World Tennis Magazine, Arthur said, “Jews, much more than Christians, have been kind and helpful as I have struggled with segregation in tennis.”  This was difficult to refute.

We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. —Robert Louis Stevenson

Stan Smith had become a solid believer in the Lord Jesus during his collegiate career at the University of Southern California.  As they traveled the world, they spent virtually every day together – both in private and in the glare of spotlights and television – allowing Arthur an up-close-and-personal look at Stan’s faith.  What he found was consistency.  If Stan won, he was gracious, and if he lost, he was just as gracious.  If it was the middle Sunday of Wimbledon and all the other players were resting for the grueling second week, Stan was speaking in some London church.  When Stan married, he married a beautiful young lady deeply committed to Christ.  Stan was (and is) consistent.

How this consistency impacted Arthur was shown on a very dramatic evening in Dallas.  Arthur and Stan had reached the finals of the biggest tournament of the year.  This event, played before a packed house and before a vast worldwide television audience, had millions of dollars and the title, “World Champion,” riding on the outcome.  As it happened, the whole match, the whole tournament, the entire tennis year was to be determined by one shot, a very dinky one at that.  Arthur had caught Stan deep in his own back court and sought to win the match with a little drop shot barely over the net.  It was a beautifully executed shot.  It seemed to hit once and sort of die, but Stan, running, lunging, desperately reaching, got to the ball and flicked it over the net past Arthur.  Now, the question was whether the ball was still “up,” still good, when Stan hit it.  Stan said, yes, it was, and with that answer, Stan won the game, the set, the match, and the championship.  In the post-match television interview, the announcer asked Arthur why he didn’t protest and demand that the point be played over.  His answer was memorable and telling: “If Stan said it was up, it was up.”  Wow!  If Stan said it was up, it was up.  With everything on the line, Stan’s word could be trusted.  Consistency.

All the above will provide context for the most important part of the Ashe-Smith relationship.  One day in 1998, Arthur called ans asked me to meet him at his beautiful and historic farmhouse in upstate New York.  This was not unusual.  He and I had worked there often on television projects.  We had won Emmys for our joint efforts on the special, “A Hard Road to Glory.”  But what he had to say to me that day was highly unusual.  He told me he had contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion related to his ongoing heart problems.  He said he wanted to keep this a secret so he could accomplish some things before the AIDS activists swooped down on him.  He told me that Stan would also know, and he hoped that Stan and I would give him a crash course in the Scriptures, pray for him, and share our faith with him.  From that point, Arthur and I were in contact most every day.  I would fax him Scripture in the morning, and we would discuss it by phone in the afternoon.  His calls would always begin this way: “Rab?  Arthur.  What’s happening?”  (My initials are RAB, and many people call me, Rab.)

Stan and Margie Smith rearranged their schedule so they could be with Arthur and Jeanne on many weekends.  Arthur’s faith and understanding grew tremendously.  His confidence in the future, in an eternal future, manifested itself in many ways.  Larry King, on his television show, asked Arthur if he was a religious person and if he believed in life after death.  “Yes,” Arthur said on both counts.  Before that, Arthur had assured me of his trust in Christ.

A tremendous sadness comes over me when I realize I will never again pick up the phone and hear, “Rab?  Arthur.”  But the sadness is quickly replaced by joy with the understanding that Arthur will never again need to ask, “What’s happening?”  Now he knows what’s happening.  He knows we love him.  And he knows that his friend Stan Smith loves him as a brother.

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