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A champion unmatched

by Mike Lupica

Althea first to ace major challenge

She came off the streets of Harlem in the '30s and '40s with an old wooden tennis racket somebody gave her when she was 14 and her dreams and hardly anything else of value. The world threw it all at Althea Gibson. She was black and a woman and poor. She finally ran from her father, all the way to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She slept in the subways sometimes, to avoid school. Once she had that racket, school no longer interested her. She dreamed of being a tennis star, even though no black tennis player, man or woman, had ever played in our national championships, or at Wimbledon.
People say now she was the first Venus Williams, the first Serena. Althea Gibson was her sport's Jackie Robinson, exactly like him in this way: She believed if you had greatness in you, nobody could hold you back.

As a kid, she would even sneak into the Apollo Theater, and imagine herself on that stage. Venus and Serena Williams came out of a hard childhood themselves. At least they had a family. Althea Gibson had herself, and a talent for tennis that only a handful of people, of any color, has ever had.

Most people have this idea that Arthur Ashe was the first tennis champion of color. It was Gibson, out of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club and the Harlem River Tennis Courts, out of anyplace uptown where she could find a place to hit a ball.

She died yesterday at the age of 76, poor and mostly forgotten in an East Orange, N.J., hospital. It had been years since anybody had seen her in public. She was too proud to let the world see her sick, finally crippled. She was too proud to ask for handouts. She had been Althea Gibson once, after all.

She wanted the ones who could remember her to remember her as she was. So she did not come to the stadium named after Ashe — one that could just as easily be called Gibson-Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open — to watch Venus and Serena play there.

She would not let anybody stop her, on her way to having the world know her name. Nobody could talk to her later, when she retreated from the world. She was who she was.

David Dinkins, the ex-mayor of New York, was her friend. Occasionally he would call her on my behalf, ask if she was ready to talk about a historic tennis life, one that did not really begin until three years after Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers.

"She would know right away," Dinkins said. "She'd say, 'You're calling for somebody, aren't you?' Snapping at me, really. I'd admit I was. She'd say, 'I don't want to talk to anybody.'"

Dinkins and Gibson were born the same year, 1927, Dinkins in New Jersey, Gibson in South Carolina. Dinkins used to call her every year on her birthday, in August. Back in 1999, before Serena Williams won the Open and became the first black woman since Gibson to win a major championship, Dinkins called and greeted her the way he always did — "Hey, champ" — and talked to her that day about the Williams sisters.

"I told her that these women command our attention the way she once did," Dinkins said. "She said to stop comparing people, let them stand on their own."

She always did. She had help along the way. Sugar Ray Robinson helped pay some of her expenses after she won her first tournament, the New York State tournament for black girls, at the age of 15. And it was another American tennis champion, Alice Marble, who wrote about Althea Gibson in the magazine, American Lawn Tennis, in 1950, told how Gibson was being kept away from the important tournaments and important theaters of her sport, because of race.

Gibson played at Forest Hills that year, Wimbledon the next. She won the French Open in 1956, Forest Hills and Wimbledon in 1957, both Forest Hills and Wimbledon again in '58.

When she presented her Wimbledon trophies to the Smithsonian in 1988, she said, "Who could have imagined? Who could have thought?"

She imagined all manner of adventures for herself, because even though she had been born black, this was still America. She did believe she had the voice for the Apollo. She tried women's professional golf, and bowling, and even toured briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters. In her late 40s, before her body began to betray her, she was New Jersey's commissioner of athletics. She could do everything except make the kind of money that sports champions like Venus and Serena now make.

"Can you even imagine the kind of money she would make today?" Dinkins said to me once. "What she could have made if she had even been born 10 years later than she was?"

If Althea Gibson is not the best female athlete this country has ever produced, she is in the conversation. And, more than that, Gibson was first. Forty years before the Williams sisters began to win majors in tennis, 20years before Ashe won Wimbledon, she was what David Dinkins called her. She was the champ, from all the way uptown. Hers was a remarkable American life, one whose best, brightest moments came much too late, did not last nearly long enough, were too quickly forgotten, by us all.

731 Posts
Althea Gibson was a great lady and a true champion. May she rest in peace.
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34,218 Posts
Great piece. And from the New York Times:

Gibson Deserved a Better Old Age

Published: September 29, 2003

It was a miracle that a daughter of Harlem got to play on the fine lawns of Wimbledon and Forest Hills, but very quickly it became a bitter miracle.

Althea Gibson never got rich from her triumphs, and later she was too frail to face the multitudes who would have loved to meet her.

We all lost because of her privacy in the later years. We all should have witnessed in person the kind of strong and daring woman it took to learn not only the tennis strokes but also the accompanying curtsies that went along with winning Wimbledon.

Doctors may have something to say about how stress was a factor in the diabetes that killed Jackie Robinson far too young, and the condition that exposed Arthur Ashe to infected blood, and the strokes and probably also depression that kept Gibson from the public eye in the last decades of her life.

It could not have been easy to be Robinson or Ashe or Gibson, who led the way for others, at considerable cost to themselves.

Before blacks designed automobiles and led corporations, before blacks announced their candidacies for president, Althea Gibson went out virtually alone - in a white tennis outfit, in a white world - and excelled.

Gibson died yesterday at the age of 76 after being close to a recluse for the past 20 years. The spirit that had led her to survive hard times and enabled her to beat country-club women still burned in her, but she did not want strangers to see her old and feeble.

She was available to some people, however. Her best friends, like Fran Gray, the president and chief executive of the Althea Gibson Foundation, and Gibson's former doubles partner, Angela Buxton of Britain, attested that Gibson was watching and reading and following back home.

When young black tennis players named Venus and Serena Williams came along, Gibson answered their questions, albeit from a distance.

The gap between these two modern young women and the weary old champion in New Jersey was huge, but mutual friends put Gibson together with Venus on the telephone once in 1997.

"The crowds will love you," Gibson told her. "Be who you are and let your racket do the talking."

Venus and her sister had already been provided quite enough entitlement to be themselves. Gibson was giving them advice from her memories of the polite veneer when she burst into tennis.

She had somehow learned the game on the street outside her apartment in Harlem, and she had been discovered by the national network of black professionals who prepared prodigies like Ashe and Gibson for the white world.

There was only one of her, which was undoubtedly reassuring to the tennis world. There were no rules against the participation of blacks, as Jackie Robinson faced as a young baseball player. The tennis tradition was separation through the very real barriers of money and class.

After early discouragements, Gibson won Wimbledon and the United States nationals in 1957 and 1958 at the advanced age of 30 and 31. The celebrations in the stands were sincere, as far as that went.

Nevertheless, within a year, Gibson was a halftime novelty act with the Harlem Globetrotters, who had seen the best black players signed by the National Basketball Association. Gibson had no professional sport opening up for her, but she had already set an example. Leslie Allen had a photograph of Gibson in her room when she was a child, and later Allen played in college and joined the women's tour.

One day, Gibson went to a workout in Boston and gave a personal pep talk to Allen, a willowy young professional. Don't just settle for winning matches, Gibson told her. Think about winning the entire tournament.

"It changed my whole mind-set," said Allen, who won enough matches to break into the top 20.

Nowadays Allen works with the Ashe foundation and is a mentor to young African-Americans.

Tennis is a little more open now than it was when Althea Gibson flamed through it. The public has the right to root for or against Venus and Serena Williams. There are other black players, not as many as there might be.

And the stands at Flushing Meadows are enriched by passionate tennis fans of all colors, who add their considerable dollars to the rarefied ambience of the Open. The main stadium at the National Tennis Center is named for Arthur Ashe. A few miles away is a parkway named for Jackie Robinson.

It is a pity that Althea Gibson never got out to the new place, to hear a roar in honor of her short, glorious and ultimately bittersweet career.

434 Posts
Ms. Althea Gibson, you will be surely missed. You above all show no matter how hard and difficult the way is toward achieving your goals and dreams...

you have to keep going on.

Plainclothes Division
6,350 Posts
Some nice tributes to Althea. Unfortunately, they came too late, even as they admonished themselves and others for doing so. And it's really surprising to see something like that from Lupica, given his disdain for women's sports. (When women's tennis surpassed men's in popularity, he'd attempt to dispute that by bringing something from a tournament 30 years earlier.)

If these people truly want to honor Gibson, do it by respecting those for whom she opened the door, such as Venus, Serena, Chanda, et al, and do it by respecting those who play her sport. Otherwise, it's just a verbal placebo.
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