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Harvard Law Waits as Ashe Disciple Chases Dream


Commentary by Scott Soshnick

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- It’s been a lousy stretch for marquee athletes and their coaches. So many clowns, criminals and boneheads.

Talk about cash for clunkers. A gun-toting Super Bowl hero. A wide receiver driving drunk and killing a man. An Olympic hero smoking a bong. A coach’s affair. On and on it goes.

Perhaps it’s time fans adjust the yardstick used to gauge which athletes are worthy of their time, money and emotional investment. Maybe the biggest stars shouldn’t always generate the best-selling jerseys.

Too often overlooked are the rank-and-file, the benchwarmer, the no-name whom Nike Inc. doesn’t sponsor. It’s always about the one-name wonders -- Tiger, LeBron and, around New York this time of year, Roger and Rafa.

Yes, the winners deserve their audience of admirers. So, too, however, do select wannabes, even if their name and game aren’t associated with Herculean athletic achievement.

Qualifying day at the U.S. Open offered the sports fan who still believes in the notion of athletes as role models one Blake Strode, the 694th-ranked player who is putting off Harvard Law School to chase his dream of being the next Arthur Ashe.

It’s a pursuit that began a decade ago when, at the age of 12, a black kid from St. Louis sat at his computer and contemplated what made Ashe a legend. The U.S. Tennis Association was doing the asking for its annual essay contest. The rules were simple. One page. Keep it under 300 words.

I dug up a copy of the submission and presented it to Strode, now 22, after his inaugural U.S. Open qualifying match on Tuesday afternoon. He’d just been defeated, 6-3, 6-1. But, as you will see, winning and losing won’t define him.

Lived It

“Wow,” Strode said, clutching the paper, scanning his words as if he’d been reunited with an old friend. “I very clearly remember writing it.”

Wrote it a decade ago. Lived it ever since.

What’s noteworthy is that a wise-beyond-his-years Strode made little reference to tennis, even though Ashe won three Grand Slam singles titles, including the 1968 U.S. Open. Strode won the writing contest, earning an expenses-paid trip to the 1999 Open in New York, where he met Serena Williams and Andre Agassi.

“Everything just seemed so huge,” Strode recalled.

His match against Alexandre Sidorenko the other day took place on Court 7, which, depending on time and cloud cover, resides in the considerable shadow of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis venue in the world.

“You clearly see it from anywhere on the grounds,” he said. “I’m mindful of the legacy that he left.”

Clouded Judgment

If only that were true of more athletes, many of whom let fame and fortune cloud their judgment. As Strode pointed out, too many tennis players -- and athletes in other sports --reside in bubbles where, in his words, little things become obsessions.

Strode’s essay is a good place to start.

Almost invariably, Strode wrote a decade ago, when tennis fans are asked to identify a legend they respond with Rod Laver, Roy Emerson or Pete Sampras. The only criterion, it seemed to him, was lots of winning.

But, as Strode pointed out, there are other routes to legendary. Like breaking barriers and inspiring others.

Ashe grew up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, and used tennis as a vehicle to an education. The high-school valedictorian always used to say that children should spend two hours reading a book for every hour they practice tennis or any other sport.

The Way It Worked

That’s the way it worked for Strode, which is probably why the University of Arkansas graduate was granted admission to Harvard Law School. Strode deferred his enrollment to focus on tennis.

For now.

Strode doesn’t have a sponsor, which is why he will spend much of October fundraising in his hometown of St. Louis. Travel expenses, coaches and lodging are his responsibility. That’s not easy for a player whose total prize money this year is $3,918. Strode cringes at the dollar figure, especially when compared with No. 1 Roger Federer, whose sponsors include Nike, NetJets Inc. and Procter & Gamble Co.’s Gillette brand.

His tennis ambitions are modest. Keep inching up the rankings, becoming a better player. Become a better person, too.

To that end, we know what Strode, the kid, wrote about Ashe. What, however, would Strode want young fans to write about him?

“That you can be a good, decent person, that you can be approachable and still be successful,” he said. “You can only play tennis for so long.”

And then it’s off to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where law will replace lobs and lets. Strode says he’s interested in becoming a judge, which got me thinking about Sonia Sotomayor, a minority from the Bronx who got a pretty big judicial gig recently.

Wouldn’t it be something if the kid who idolized Ashe never reached center court, but the Supreme Court? Heck, even a 12- year-old knows there are many routes to becoming a legend.

(Scott Soshnickis a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net