I always loved Arthur Ashe. Growing up watching him play tennis was remarkable. His grace, his words and actions impressed everyone he came in contact with, even a young fan like me who grew up to become a sports photographer.

While working for Agence France-Presse, I was assigned to photograph the first Arthur Ashe Foundation’s AIDS Tennis Challenge on August 30, 1992, at the US Open.  It was my opportunity to see and photograph one of my childhood heroes. Just four months earlier, Arthur had announced that he had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion. Seeing him at the event was my first experience with the disease, I was devastated at how frail he looked. 

Four months later on December 3, 1992, and just two months before his death, Arthur visited SUNY Downstate’s Health Science Center in Brooklyn to announce the creation of the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (AAIUH), one of only two organizations to which he lent his name, beginning a 30-year partnership with the medical center. Little did I know the relationship this would bring forth in my life.

Six years later, I was approached by AAIUH to photograph their gala event, Sportsball 1998. Held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City, it featured many titans of sports and medicine. My expertise was early digital photography and the methods of getting images to newspapers around the world from this type of gala. This was pre-Internet and social media, newspapers and wire services like the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, were the only way of publicizing events.

As I learned more about Arthur’s legacy with the organization, my respect for him grew even more. AAIUH opened the Health Science Academy (HSA) after-school program in 1994, and as of today, over 2,700 high school students have completed the three year, after-school science enrichment program – from sophomore through senior year. In 2020, 14 graduates of HSA and Bishop Loughlin High School earned a total of $5,962,924 in scholarships.

At Sportsball, the students of HSA are celebrated as much as any of the gala award winners. And the celebrities and business titans treat them like rock stars.

Dr. Sadeaqua Scott speaks at Sportsball 2008 with students from the Health Science Academy. Photo by Mark D Phillips
Dr. Sadeaqua Scott speaks at Sportsball 2008 with students from the Health Science Academy. © Mark D Phillips
Yvonna Kopacz, Dr Sadequa Scott and Brett Wright at Sportsball 2015 at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan. ©Mark D Phillips
Yvonna Kopacz, Dr Sadequa Scott and Brett Wright at Sportsball 2015 at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan. ©Mark D Phillips

Each year I talk to Dr. Sadeaqua Scott, whom I met as a student at HSA. While attending Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, NY, she was accepted into the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health’s Health Science Academy and later continued to work behind the scenes as a college intern. Her resume speaks of her passion for research. Most recently, she completed her senior postdoctoral studies at the University of Miami as the lead scientist on a phase I clinical trial. As CEO and founder of the not-for-profit organization, Urban Health Science Initiative (UHSI), she has given lectures to underserved communities regarding health and wellness based on both peer-reviewed and community-based participatory research. Dr. Scott is just one success story spurred by Arthur Ashe’s dedication to improving  lives.

The name Arthur Ashe brings out the biggest names in sports and industry to Sportsball. Over the years, I have crossed paths with many top professional athletes  and witnessed their awe of Arthur as they talk of his lasting impression on them. It’s not just tennis, it’s players of  every sport, and it’s a who’s-who of the greatest athletes of this era.

A famous Arthur Ashe quote says it all, “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.” Arthur challenged so many to give back to the communities that need help.

At my first Sportsball, I met Jackie Joyner-Kersee, named the greatest female athlete of the 20th century. She said his grace taught her so much growing up. She started the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation and holds her own fundraiser, Sequins, Suits and Sneakers Gala, in St. Louis.

Baseball legend Hank Aaron at SportsBall 2000 in New York on April 26 honored by the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health (AAIUH) with a Leadership Award for Community Service. ©Mark D Phillips
Baseball legend Hank Aaron at SportsBall 2000. ©Mark D Phillips

Sportsball 2000 gave me the opportunity to meet Hank Aaron. When I told him I was a 14-year-old fan in the stands on April 8, 1974, when he hit his 715th home run and I still had the program from the game, he offered to autograph it for me. He said, “Arthur and I had a lot in common in our sports careers.” He began the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation in 1994, awarding hundreds of scholarships to underprivileged youth from across the United States

The list of celebrities involved in Sportsball goes on: Willis Reed, Kym Hampton, Anucha Browne, John Starks, Cal Ramsey, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams, George Forman, Tommy Hearns, Harry Carson, Keith Hernandez…..

I felt as if I was “in the room where it happened” when Bryant Gumbel, his wife Hillary Quinlan, and I met Maya Angelou in a private moment behind the scenes at Sportsball 2006. Arthur wrote to his daughter, Camera, in Days of Grace how Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning” brought tears to his eyes during Bill Clinton’s inauguration, just days prior to his death.

And she was just one of many from arts and entertainment who came to Sportsball. Actor Danny Glover celebrating with fellow awardee, Diahann Carroll; Al Roker hugging Bryant Gumbel after their “Today” show days; Comedian David Brenner sharing a moment with Rusty Staub.

One of my favorite politicians, former Mayor David Dinkins, came every year. I had photographed “Mr. Mayor” many times at City Hall for the Associated Press in 1989 to 1990. Every year we reminisced and he told me of his love for Arthur. The  Billie Jean King Tennis Center would not exist without him. He was about inclusion. After joining the board of the USTA he told tennis.com, “My greatest interest and concern was that people playing tennis look like this country. Through tennis, hundreds of thousands of youngsters become better people.”

In his speech announcing the institute in 1993, Arthur said, “If we can use the resources of this premier institution to elevate the quality of life in this diverse community, we will have developed a model that can help similar communities around the country.”

Ruth Browne, Sc.D., CEO of Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, at Sportsball 2015. ©Mark D Phillips

The staff at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health has kept that vision alive. 

The first AAIUH CEO Ruth Browne is now CEO of Ronald McDonald House New York. Her resume embodies the values that Arthur put forth the day he started the Institute for Urban Health. She managed the creation of the Health Science Academy and brought many community health programs to life. Heart of a Woman and Barbershop Talk with Brothers are two successful programs fulfilling Arthur’s vision of “starting where they are, using what they have, and doing what they can.”

LeeAnn Hicks and Dr Marilyn Fraser celebrate during the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health's Sportsball 2018 at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan on October 11, 2018. ©Mark D Phillips
LeeAnn Hicks and Dr Marilyn Fraser celebrate during AAIUH’s Sportsball 2018. ©Mark D Phillips

Dr. Marilyn Fraser, the second and current CEO, continues to follow Arthur’s vision of bringing community-based health care to life. Dr. Fraser has leveraged her talents and assets in support of the collaborative work with the Brooklyn Health Disparities Center, a partnership between the SUNY Downstate Medical Center, the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and the Office of the Brooklyn Borough. Fraser told theglasshammer.com that as the years go by, she works to keep Arthur’s mission and legacy in the forefront. 

LeeAnn Hicks, Executive Manager, Corporate Affairs & Special Events, is the whirling dervish behind Sportsball, putting together the event year after year. “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost,” is a quote by Arthur that embodies her spirit.

Sportsball is an integral part of the mission to keep Arthur Ashe’s legacy alive, bringing together a diverse group of politicians, athletes, celebrities, CEOs  physicians and ordinary folks, young and old. With every graduate of the Health Science Academy, the world becomes a better place. I can’t wait to photograph this year’s event on October 20, 2022, held in the same location as the very first Sportsball1993 at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan.

Health Science Academy students and volunteers at Sportsball 2011. ©Mark D Phillips
Health Science Academy students and volunteers at Sportsball 2011. ©Mark D Phillips