NEW YORK -- Former tennis great Arthur Ashe, angry that his secret was going to be made public, confirmed Wednesday that he has AIDS.
Ashe, the first black man to win a Grand Slam championship, told a jammed news conference he developed the disease from a blood transfusion nearly nine years ago, and he has known of it since 1988. At that time, he thought he would be dead within three years.
'I read that 90 percent of those diagnosed with AIDS are out of here in three years, and that's the way I thought,' he said. 'But I saw I wasn't getting sick. We're still learning about the disease, and I'm living proof that what was thought to be the case as recently as three years ago isn't nearly the case. Early intervention can do wonders.'
Ashe, calm, composed and soft-spoken, nevertheless expressed resentment that he was pressured to reveal to the world that he has AIDS. He was forced to do so, he explained, because he knew USA Today was going to publish a story on him.
'Someone ratted on me,' he said, with a small attempt at a smile. 'It put me in the unenviable position of having to lie if I wanted to protect our privacy. No one should have to make that choice. I am sorry that I have been forced to make this revelation now. After all, I am not running for some office of public trust, nor do I have stockholders to account to.
'It is only that I fall under the dubious umbrella of 'public figure.' I am not sick, and I can function very well in all that I have been involved in for the past several years.'
Ashe, 48, wearing a gray suit with white shirt and red tie, was flanked by his wife of 15 years, Jeanne, a photographer, and New York Mayor David Dinkins. At one point while reading a prepared statement, Ashe paused for a full minute when he came to a reference to his adopted 5-year-old daughter, Camera.
'Camera already knows that perfect strangers come up to daddy on the street and say 'hi,'' Jeanne said, picking up her husband's notes. 'Beginning tonight, Arthur and I must teach her how to react to comments that have very little to do with our reality.'
There were more than 200 people jammed into a room for the hastily called news conference at the main headquarters of HBO, one block from Times Square. Ashe is a tennis commentator for the cable network, and said he intends to once again cover Wimbledon this year 'assuming the UK will grant me entrance to the UK.'
Born in Richmond, Va., July 10, 1943, Ashe was one of the first black tennis stars. As an amateur, he won the first U.S. Open in 1968 and captured Wimbledon in 1975 with a stunning upset over Jimmy Connors, who at the time was suing Ashe for libel. In all, Ashe had 33 career titles and rose to No. 2 in the world rankings in May, 1976.
He later served as U.S. Davis Cup captain for five years, was the second president of the Association of Tennis Professionals, wrote a three-volume history of the African-American athlete, worked as a broadcaster and also was instrumental in organizing the international cultural and sports boycott of South Africa in the 1980s, founding Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid.
Ashe said he found out he was HIV positive after a brain operation he underwent in 1988. After losing use of his right hand he underwent pre- surgical testing, which disclosed toxic plasmosis, a marker for AIDS.
Ashe had suffered a severe heart attack in July 1979 and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in December of that year. A relapse of his heart condition necessitated further surgery in June of 1983. He said doctors are 100 percent certain he became HIV positive during a blood transfusion and they are 95 percent sure it was during his second heart bypass operation in 1983.
At the time Ashe contracted the HIV virus, it was still more than a year before all blood was screened to see if it contained the virus.
Persons diagnosed with HIV infection can live 10 or more years if they receive proper medical care, but eventual death is virtually certain unless a cure is discovered.
Only his family and some close friends were aware of his condition, and Ashe hoped to keep it that way to protect his wife and daughter, both of whom are HIV negative.
He explained he was angry that he was forced to go public because of 'the loss of degree of control I have over my life. I can't do things I may want to do and I can't comfortably go to some places.'
As for any sign of illness, Ashe said: 'There's no question that every once in a while I have good days and bad days. The ratio is about 6 to 1. I don't think anyone at my stage can go without any bad days. In general I am not sick. I live a very normal life. I can play 36 holes of golf and walk. I can do about anything anyone here does, except if you run in the New York Marathon.'
Last Nov. 7, basketball star Magic Johnson announced that he had tested HIV positive, the result of random heterosexual activity. Johnson, however, says he has not developed AIDS.
Now that he has gone public, Ashe said he expects to work for AIDS education and possibly do something in conjuction with Johnson, whom he has met just once. Ashe spoke on the phone Wednesday morning with President Bush, whom he has known about 25 years, and said he might work on the President's Commission on AIDS.
Ashe and his wife made some 35 phone calls Wednesday to warn family and friends he was making a public announcement, and there has been a warm response to his plight.
'Arthur is one of the great human beings ever to play the game of tennis,' said former tennis star Chris Evert. 'It just seems so unfair that in his young life he has had a heart attack, open-heart surgery and now has to be stricken with this virus. I've known Arthur for 20 years and he's always been a gentleman and a great ambassador for tennis. I'm praying for him.'
Ashe himself addressed the thought that he might be considered a tragic figure.
'I wouldn't use the word tragedy,' he offered. 'It's a crisis, a personal crisis, but I've been through so many of them. This is just another one.'