ESPN 30 for 30 Shorts: Arthur & Johnnie (2013)

Directed by Tate Donovan

Tennis is one of those slightly fringe sports, especially for me. It is not one of the major sports (baseball, football, etc.), but I love watching it too, but usually just the majors. I love playing tennis too, though I didn’t take it up until my college years; a late bloomer. So I never saw Arthur Ashe play. I don’t even know a whole lot about him unfortunately. But after some brief research after seeing this film, I can tell what a huge figure he was not only in tennis, but in America, and black America. So what actor Tate Donovan brings us in his film is another one of those trivial nuggets the 30 for 30 shorts feature. But this time, the trivial nugget might not be so trivial after all.

If I didn’t know much about Arthur Ashe beforehand, I certainly didn’t know about his brother, Johnnie. They were close in age, and both in the military in the mid-1960s. In fact, Arthur was stationed at West Point when he won the US Open in 1968. But the reason he did win, can be boiled down to the opportunity given him by his brother, who was on a tour in Vietnam. With Johnnie in Vietnam, Arthur could not also be deployed, to avoid the deaths of both brothers. So when Johnnie’s first tour was over, he went to his superior, and signed on for another so his brother could compete. Only Johnnie knew of this. The film may come across as nothing more than an average, extended news story you might find on 60 Minutes, but it manages to reflect on more than a simple report.

It becomes quite existential in its examination of this quiet favor. Perhaps not within the context of the film itself, but it leaves room for such reflection. Johnnie knew the talents of his brother Arthur, the importance of his impact. Perhaps even moreso, he knew his own talents as a marine. He was very fortunate to get out of Vietnam after two tours with his life, but the gift he gave to Arthur and the rest of the country is equal to his service in the military. It is not easy to step back and see the bigger picture, to admit the importance/talents of another over your own. But Johnnie managed this. He didn’t do it for fame, he did it for the good.

*** – Good

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