Tennis Great Honored; A Legacy Slighted

By Annette John-Hall
Updated: September 3, 2007

NEW YORK — Pride was what Gilbert Little had expected to feel last Monday when he tuned in to the U.S. Open’s lavish opening-night tribute to Althea Gibson, who 50 years ago became the first African American ever to win the tennis championship.

There were lots of reasons to be emotional, Little thought, as he watched an impressive array of African American female “firsts” take part in the broadcast.

His was personal. Little is a coach at the Althea Gibson Community Education and Tennis Center. Located on Girard Avenue in North Philadelphia, it’s one of two tennis facilities in the nation to bear Gibson’s name, a particular source of pride for those who work and play there.

So why was it that the more Little watched, the angrier he got?

Because about 25 of his kids — students from the Althea Gibson Center — were supposed to be at the celebration, standing center court in New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and astronaut Mae Jemison.

But in a disappointment that nearly ruined their summer, their invitation was revoked last week, ordinary kids dissed in favor of rating-boosting star power.

Thanks, but no thanks

“It was quite a letdown,” Little said. “A lot of these kids had never been out of Philly before.”

“We had an overwhelming response” from celebrities who wanted to participate in the broadcast, the U.S. Tennis Association’s Chris Widmaier explained in an interview on Wednesday. “And that ended up changing what the night would look like.”

The show’s producers looked at the Philadelphia group in the lineup, Widmaier said, and “it was like, ‘Oh, no, what do we do now?’ ” Shortly afterward, the bad-news phone call was placed.

As an act of contrition, the association offered the center 40 tickets to Monday night’s events and the possibility that it would be mentioned during the ceremony.

No thanks, said Bronal Harris, executive director of the Gibson center.

As she saw it, simply attending the U.S. Open wasn’t enough. It should have been a no-brainer for a tribute to Gibson to include representatives from a program devoted to furthering the pioneer’s legacy among African American children.

“We had her name on our center before she passed” in 2003 at age 76, Harris said. “She was familiar with us.”

Though she watched from home, Harris thought the celebration was tremendous. “But with all due respect, Althea Gibson’s legacy isn’t necessarily those women who honored her on TV. Her legacy is this,” she said, air-hugging the facility’s surroundings. “We’re trying to grow tennis in a multicultural way.”

An anchor for the neighborhood

To Harris, a former Wachovia Bank exec whose vision made the center a reality four years ago, any publicity is welcome if it sheds light on the positive things the place does for youths ages 8 to 17.

She gives me the grand tour: three regulation outdoor courts complete with flower garden and two indoors in the “bubble,” as well as an area where kids learn computers and graphic arts and take part in educational and nutritional programs. There’s even an Althea Gibson cookbook in the works.

The center has helped develop all-Public League players such as Richard Freeman, a 17-year-old senior at Benjamin Franklin High. Little turned Freeman on to tennis; Freeman, in turn, has mentored younger kids in the Richard Allen Homes/North Philadelphia neighborhoods that the complex anchors.

In all, its programs have served close to 300 children this year. In October, it plans to kick off a “Put Down the Gun, Pick Up a Racquet” program that will provide students with a safe haven after school and on weekends.

As the center approaches its fifth anniversary, Harris hopes that an aggressive fund-raising drive will yield the millions of dollars needed to complete the second floor of the 21,000-square-foot complex.

Only then can it live up to the promise of the tall, dignified woman whose serve-and-volley skills penetrated the barriers of race and gender in tennis.

As for being squeezed out of the spotlight, Harris reminds me that there’s always next year. Remember, she says, Gibson won the U.S. championship in 1958, too.