Friday, May 15, 2009

Searching for Stevie Brown but finding Bob Ryland

1976 is a year I will never let slip away from my memory.It was when I turned 16 and got my driver's license and independence.1976 was a year in which I went to see the movie “Rocky” with my tennis buddy Stevie Brown that inspired me to dedicate myself to fitness/tennis and never giving up on my dreams .
“Rocky” had me getting up before school every morning to run a 1.6 mile loop around my Cincinnati neighborhood .I even went so far as to ingest the raw egg diet of Mr. Balboa before many of those early morning training sessions..
I joined a gym and did weight training every other day .
Stevie Brown and I were headed in opposite directions on the tennis court in 1976.Stevie with his smooth classic strokes was the star of our high school team.
Me with the mentality of a brick wall was content to hit balls until my opponents either got bored ,frustrated or just plain angry with my ability to return every ball sent my way until the cows came home.
My defining moment in tennis was in 1973. Reaching the finals of the boys city championships .It was a dream I had envisioned since my brother had done it twice .
I never dreamed of winning .Getting to the finals was the “vision” .
That is where Stevie entered the picture ..On the other half of the tournament was a name I didn’t bother to look for or expect to lock horns with at all .
I beat a cocky kid in the quarters named Andy Porter who was talking about who he was going to play in the next round in the car ride to our alternate match site .As if beating me was a foregone conclusion .Only problem for Andy Porter was I wanted to win the damn match more than him .
The guy I faced after Porter was a pushover .Then came trouble with a capital "T"(or "S")
A year younger and about a half foot shorter than me . Stevie Brown kicked my butt .
I was not cocky .I didn't assume I would beat Stevie .I had achieved my goal of getting to the finals just like big brother Dave .
In 1976 I had let that memory fade pretty far away .Rocky was calling out to me .
Stevie now Steve was on his way to leading our high school team to the city and state championships.I was drinking a lot of raw eggs and humming the Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now”.
Many years had passed and I don’t really know what happened to Steve. "Rocky” was still around in some shape or form (or Rambo).I was working at Midtown Tennis Club in New York and noticed an article on the wall about Bob Ryland who was a pro at Midtown.
The headline “Arthur Ashe’s dream : to beat Bob Ryland “ hit me like a sledgehammer .
The article said Bob was the first black professional tennis player .
Jackie Robinson of my sport ....sledgehammer again !
After a few weeks I got up the courage to ask Bob to hit with me .I should have kept my mouth shut.
It was the most torturous one hour of tennis I ever encountered .Bob only hit the ball that day with sidespin on both forehand and backhand .If I did get in position to hit a shot it was out of sheer luck .
Like Micky the trainer in “Rocky”made him chase a live chicken all over the yard Bob’s shots were like hundreds of chickens and with each missed shot my frustration boiled over .
I yelled at him to," play tennis like a man" .He laughed and continued to torture me with his sidearmed missiles .
After that I asked Bob to help coach me for some USTA men’s events .
Bob’s answer was “NO” .
He mentioned an event in Brooklyn that I should enter on an indoor linoleum court.
Not the tennis I grew up with in O-H-I-O.
That court was faster than greased lightning and I lost 6-0,6-0 to a guy named Michael Clarke.
I pretty much begged Bob on the subway ride home to help me get some game.
Bob finally agreed as we passed under the East River and back to the safety of the slow clay courts at Midtown Tennis .
One day as I was relaxing before teaching junior groups Bob walked by me with a tennis ball hopper filled with 100 balls . “Let’s go”, he said and motioned to the court.
I jumped up and quickly followed the “Master” onto court 3 .
Bob then proceeded to hit balls to the farthest reaches of the court and simply said ,”hit the ball as hard as you can”.
I did and 100 balls and 10 minutes later I was gasping for air and sweating profusely.
I limped off to teach my class that day .Over the next few months Bob repeated that drill and added other drills along with some sound technical advice .
Since most of my lessons were hitting lessons I could practice Bob’s methods .
Most of the pros at the club could not understand my desire to play and train in my free time since I was already working seven days a week.
I was searching for my defining moment. Where are you Stevie?
1985 was a year in which I lost eighteen first round USTA men’s matches.Ouch! Bob’s advice was simple ,”hit the ball hard and don’t be afraid”.
Winning was never discussed .Losing was not hitting the ball hard .I obliged.
That all changed when I accompanied Bob to the US Open to see Bruce Foxworth .
Bob was helping Bruce get through his early round matches .
Bruce was a cool customer on the court .He listened to Bob and was winning against some big name guys .
As we left the grounds one day I mentioned my desire to get to the Open as a player .
Bob shook his head ,”maybe one day ...keep hittin’ the ball kid “.
Stadium Tennis Center in the Bronx.In the shadows of Yankee Stadium is where my defining moment emerged .
Bob gave me a simple strategy ,”hit the ball down the middle of the court”.Down the middle until my opponent got bored , frustrated or angry with my ability to get every ball back in play until the cows came home.
My opponent was Michael Clarke of the earlier 6-0,6-0 linoleum smashfest at my expense .
This time with Bob in my corner the score was 6-1,6-1 for me.
Maybe 1973 was not my defining moment in tennis . Steve Brown had moved on to bigger and better moments and I guess that I had as well .
I have heard it said that you learn more from losses than from your wins.
I learned to fight harder . To train harder and develop a more complete game .
I learned that in my first year of tournament play when I lost seventeen times in the first round of USTA-Eastern men’s events .I thought about quitting many times during that year .Each time I lost I would speak to Bob and his first question would be ,”when is your next tournament ?”.
I never said to him ,”I quit” .
Instead I started entering tournaments in groups so after one was over I would be ready to move right into the next event .
Bob had the discipline of a champion and his mindset was rubbing off on me.
Not just in tennis but into all areas of my life .
If you think like a champion and train like a champion then eventually you will become a champion.
I spent many years searching for a way to erase the loss to Steve Brown.
In 2009 and many years removed from that loss in 1973 I am now honored that I could compete against my friend in such a meaningful match .
I never found a way to erase that loss but instead I found a tennis legend that changed my life .
In 1985 Bob Ryland helped me to look beyond Steve Brown.......and Rocky.
Arthur Ashe's hero when he was growing up was Bob Ryland now I know why.

Bob Ryland with Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Arthur Ashe in 1986 at Midtown Tenni2008 Open

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day Mom , Marcia,Sha Sha

I dedicate this to my Mom :
I want to thank my mom for giving me life. Her love was unconditional and I will always know that she was my biggest fan and supported my hopes and dreams .
She nursed me and my siblings through our various childhood ailments .She carpooled countless trips to school,sporting events,and endless other activities of my youth .
When I wanted to learn tennis she got me a lesson with our pro .When I (as a six year old) did not like some of the instructions given by the pro she became my personal coach . I was not always the easiest guy to be around .But my mom put up with my adolescent mood swings. When she once gave me a haircut (a buzzcut) at twelve years old. I swore ,"that she would never ever cut my (insert four letter expletive).... hair again!!!" . She didn't . Thanks for respecting my wishes Mom .
I loved to see my mom perform on the stage .She took her craft seriously and was on her way to big things as an actor , writer and director . I loved to see my parents dance .They were always the best dancers at parties and I was always proud to see people in awe of their moves.
When I went on the satellite tennis circuit my mom once showed up at a tournament and was my warmup partner before my match . After I lost she drilled me on the court to improve for my next event.After I won a match the next week with her watching I knew her helping me had paid off .
In 1988 she became paralyzed below the waist.Gone were her days of dancing with dad ,playing two sets of tennis with our family,climbing mountains with my brother in some far flung place,trekking off to Italy with my sister.Simple everyday activities became chores and she handled them with grace .When my wife and I got married it was too difficult for her to make the trip to our wedding.I was very sad that paralysis had taken away my mom's independence. My wife Sandra never saw my mom when she was able to walk, play tennis or dance . Eventually mom gained some strength back.
She even learned how to drive a van with the aid of hand controls.
Being in a chair did not stop her from being creative .She produced a documentary with my Aunt Lois on how to deal with being paralyzed .They won an international award for the video . When she proudly accepted the award in Los Angeles I was there by her side and was never more proud of her . When my daughter was born she made a few trips up to New York to see her cute Olivia.
On every family trip to Cincinnati our first stop was always to see my mom . Getting unpacked could wait .Seeing friends could wait .Getting Skyline chili could wait . As time went by and Mom got more frail it became apparent that each  visit could be our last one to see  our  beloved  Sha Sha (as her grandchildren called her)  .
In 2003 my siblings and I took our families to beautiful Sanibel Island for spring break .During that trip it became clear to us that mom was struggling badly.My brother Doctor Dave flew back to Cincinnati to check Mom into the hospital.
I never believed my Mom would die .To me she was always bigger than life.
My mom had slipped into a coma on a Sunday night at her home.
The news that she had died two days later came from my sister Jeanne , a nurse practitioner who was with her at the end.
Over  four hundred people came to her memorial service at Hebrew Union College.
Standing room only.Mom would have loved it.
Mom I miss your love,support,warmth,humor,smiles,phone calls ,letters,visits.I even miss your sadness .I would rather have your tears and sadness than not have you at all.
After five and a half years I still miss you Mom,Marcia,Sha Sha and think of you often.I put the colorful urn on the mantel at our ski house in the Pocono Mountains so you are with us always on our weekend retreats.
On your special day we wish you love.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jerry! Jerry!

It was 1971 and I had just met Hubert H. Humphrey(HHH) the Vice-President of the good ol' USA under LBJ . At an after party for the event for HHH I was being introduced to many politicians and political "types" . I was getting a few autographs to accompany the one I got from HHH on his American Airlines ticket jacket . A younger adult came up to me and said,"hey you want my autograph ?".
"Who are you?",I responded . Someone overheard our exchange and came up to fill me in .
"This is Jerry Springer and he is running for city council " , the guy explained .
I shook my head and as any 10 year old autograph hound would do I held out the pen in my hand and let Jerry sign .
Many years later Jerry would use that same hand to sign a check that would get him in a load of hot water but this "John Hancock" was most likely one of the first that Jerry had ever signed .
I still have the autograph tucked away in a closet somewhere in my house .
A few weeks passed and I forgot about Jerry and all things beyond the fourth grade that mattered to me at the time...UC Bearcat basketball, Batman and any type of  candy.
My dad came home from work and announced we were having a guest for dinner that night .
It was some guy running for city council and he was helping him raise money .
A little while later in walked Jerry Springer .No chants of "Jerry,Jerry".No Steve the security guy holding back crazy men going after the women they love after discovering they have been cheating on them with their brother's girlfriends .
I don't remember what we had for dinner.My mom probably made a brisket or chicken with herbs in a white wine sauce . Jerry eats with with a knife and fork just like every other civilized human being (not including Springer show bizarros).
Okay so dinner is ending and my mom who was an actress mentions that she is holding a Psychodrama theater workshop in our basement after dinner . She wonders aloud if Jerry would like to join in .My dad probably was not too excited to see this exchange between my mom and "The Ringmaster" take place . Jerry instantly accepted her offer. After dinner the theater people started filing in and must have been wondering why the guy who ran for U.S. Congress in the last election was in our basement as they entered their weekly angst fest .
I had to witness this class first hand so I plopped my ten year old frame on the floor and watched closely as the group was led through a series of "drama drills" I will call them .
At one point I remember seeing Jerry laying on the floor and I think they were telling us to pretend to be babies or something and I started laughing .I did not get kicked out so it must have been okay to giggle .
What if Steve from the "Jerry" show ran in grabbed me and pulled me out of the room?
Jerry left the class and I went back to my life of UC Bearcats,fourth grade french and pixie stix.
He got elected to city council that year and never looked back . Actually he looked back once a few years later cause he wrote a check to a "massage" parlor and got caught. My heart broke.Say it ain't so Jerry for the love of all things pure and decent in this world say it ain't so! Jerry? Did you ever hear the expression ?....... Cash is king!I guess not.
I was there the night in 1975 when Jerry got re-elected to city council after he had resigned in disgrace only a short year earlier . I remember Jerry and his wife only a few feet away from me as he tearfully made his acceptance speech.Cincinnatians are very forgiving people.
The years passed and I moved away from Cincinnati .Jerry moved on to become mayor then local TV anchor then the "Ringmaster".I moved on with my life focusing on college life(beer,girls,fraternity,Buckeye football),UC Bearcat basketball, and rock and roll (no more candy).
Jerry inspired me to get into politics as a young boy. I worked as a page in the Ohio Senate when I was a student at Ohio State .Then served as sergeant-at-arms for the Young Democrats .I even once contemplated running for the Ohio House of Representatives. Then I made my big move......I tended bar at the Governor's mansion.Then I got invited to an Inauguration party.I met the Governor and a famous Astronaut senator. I reached my 21 year old hand into my suit pocket for a pen and paper to get an autograph. A piece of Jolly Rancher candy was stuck to the paper(I guess I still was into candy)
I grabbed a cocktail napkin and like any 21 year old autograph hound would do I held out my paper and pen.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

You were always on my mind ....Baseball

Baseball has woken me up from a deep winter slumber.
My eight year old son Matt is playing in his third year of Little League and if given the choice in life would rather watch TV, play baseball all day and eat cookies than go to school ,wash behind his ears and eat spinach.
Forty years ago in Cincinnati,Ohio I was him .Except I think I liked spinach and TV options were much more limited than 10 hour Zack and Cody"Suite Life" marathons with a side of Sponge Bob and Drake and Josh for good measure .
My life was fed with stimulus from other rabid baseball fanatics .My dad and brother Dave.
Pete Rose was our hometown god and Crosley Field and Riverfront Stadium  were his temples.
As much as I loved playing sandlot baseball with my buddies and mixing it up I came to accept the fact that the organized game was not going to be a part of my life past the age of 10.
After two years of less than earth shattering results in Little League.My dad and I decided to call it quits on my baseball career and follow my path to becoming a tennis player .
I hated right field anyway !
Was this a mistake ? Did I give up on my field of dreams? Maybe. I still loved to compete and get in the mix . The sandlot was still there for me after school on most days growing up in North Avondale , my boyhood neighborhood .
Two boys from North Avondale made it all the way from the sandlot to the "Show".
Darryl Boston and David Justice .Not me.
I channeled my energies towards the tennis courts and in 1973 made it to the finals of the city championships for the Boys under 12 age division (more on that story later).
Tennis was great for me but so much of our lives are shaped by baseball and my passion for America's game never died. It lived through years of "The Big Red Machine " all the way to the Reds 1990 title with Lou Piniella.
I always remained a loyal Redleg baseball fan .
The Reds became mediocre and living in New York I was exposed to a whole other level of rabid sports fanatics . Mike and the"Mad Dog" . Fans that demanded winning teams.Calling for players and coaches heads if they lost .
George M. Steinbrenner . Winning at all costs .For a simple midwestern boy it was a bit off putting.
Then along came Joe Torre ,Jeter and Don Zimmer .Zimmer a Cincinnati son with the Yankees.
Loyalties were shifted .I was scared to tell my dad I was a convert to the "Bronx Bombers".
I don't know if to this day I ever broached the subject.
Tough to talk about. I am getting choked up as I type.
Then in 1999 I learned I was going to have a son of my own .
On a hot summer night in 2000 my son was born.
Before he was born I had some worries about the dynamics of a father/son relationship weighing heavily on my mind .
My daughter was easy .Cute as a button and following her mom into the worlds of gymnastics and all things not familiar to me.
Was my boy going to play tennis or sports at all .Be a righty or lefty . Eat all his vegetables .
Important stuff .
In August 2001 my dad was asked to throw out the first pitch at a Reds-Brewers game and we were allowed to go on the field to witness my dad's one pitch(a strike).
My son barely one  at the time swears that he still remembers that moment at his first game.
His second big league game was again an opportunity to go the the field at Shea Stadium and meet the Mets and do a clinic .Courtesy of his aunt and uncle both Mets fans .
Since that Reds game in 2001 me and the boy have been to around 100 games.Major League ,minor league ,college,high school,little league. We watch games on TV and replays of games.Last month in his first "real" game ever he struck out in his first at bat to lead off for his team.He got on base later on a walk . Then later in the game he was brought in to pitch as the closer .With the bases loaded he struck a guy out to end the inning . I think I held my breath the whole time he was on the mound.
His next outing he walked the first five batters and decided he likes being a catcher more.
As a hitter after a series of walks and strike outs he was still loving baseball .I was right there with him .
Last week in his fourth game of the season he got two hits .His first hits ever in a real game .
I know that this is his journey as a baseball player I can enjoy the ride even knowing it is his ride.
I know he has other interests(skiing,music,acting) .Just as my daughter is not about gymnastics anymore or all things unfamiliar to me (music,boys,snowboarding)..
As I sit here watching the raindrops fall on our deck my boy laments his game being rained out .
He quickly recovers from his rain out scenario and heads out catch a movie with his mom .
And he discovers the basic philosophy of the game.
 As Nuke Laloosh said in Bull Durham, " A friend of mine once told me: throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball, some days you win , some days you lose , some days it rains".