I was trolling for blog material midway through the recently completed American Tennis Association (ATA) national championships when I spotted Will and Pharoah casually hitting balls and chatting.
It wasn’t long before I sensed they were reminiscing about old times.
“You always had the cuter girl,” I heard Pharoah say at one point.
When they were done I asked if I could interview them. They agreed.
What I then heard was a wonderful and heartwarming story of how these two brothers had bonded as teenagers on a tennis court in Washington, D.C., where they found refuge from the trauma and troubles of black urban life.
But William Kellibrew and Pharoah DeLaine Ra had not seen each other in 20 years until the day before I met them at the 100th national championships hosted by the ATA, the nation’s oldest black sports organization. The tournament was held July 29-Aug. 5 at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore where it began in 1917.
I found other examples that day of longtime tennis pals reconnecting at the tournament. I was most fortunate – and privileged — to be at the right spot at the right time for a photo-op of Richard Williams, father and coach of Venus and Serena, with former Women’s Tennis Association standout and 1990 Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison, her former coach John Wilkerson and Willis Thomas Jr., Arthur Ashe’s first ATA doubles partner, a former ATA president and current Washington Tennis & Education Foundation (WTEF) program director.
Minutes later, I was talking to Kelvin Brown, a coach who had brought 15 junior players with him from Southern California, when his daughter Kayla rushed up all excited about having just seen several girls she had befriended while playing in an ATA tournament in 2010.
But it was the chance encounter between Will and Pharoah that stood out most. Their story underscores the social value of tennis as well as the life-coping skills that can be gained from the sport. As I listened, I couldn’t help but think this was made-for-TV stuff.
Pharoah was giving his daily pep talk to some junior players in a section of the park that had been reserved for blacks during the days of segregation when he spotted a familiar face across the way. It was Will, who had come to watch another player compete in the tournament.
“Hey, Will!” he called out.
That was the start of their remarkable reunion. They agreed to hit some balls the next day, just like they used to do for hours on the courts in and around Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
“We were like kindred spirits,” Will told me. “We enjoyed hanging out, but our one common thing was tennis.”
They said tennis steered them away from the lure of wrong paths.
Will told me how tennis helped him cope with the trauma of witnessing the murder of his mother and 12-year-old brother when he was 10 years old. Pharoah talked about how tennis helped him develop control over a short fuse that would constantly lead to fights.
Will, 43, who started playing tennis in his mid-teens, advanced through the WTEF tennis program, which targets underprivileged inner-city youths. He attended the University of the District of Columbia on a tennis scholarship and later studied at the University of Sunderland in England through a sister-city exchange program. He now is an internationally known motivational speaker on coping with trauma and is the director of trauma programs for the city of Baltimore Health Department.
“I was on a pathway to destruction,” Will told me. “I suffered a lot of trauma as a kid and took it out on the court. WTEF taught me tennis etiquette.”
Pharoah, 43, began hitting balls at an early age wherever his uncle Julien DeLaine, a former head pro at the WTEF, was giving lessons. He went to St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC, on a tennis scholarship and is in his second stint as a coach at Zina Garrison’s tennis academy in Houston.
“I was a court rat,” Pharoah told me. “Tennis saved my life. “
Julien DeLaine, now the assistant junior tennis director at the Aspen Hill Club in Silver Spring, MD., remembers seeing the progress of Will and Pharoah as they spent hours on the courts. He said both were quick learners.
“We spent some good times hitting balls together, and he started to really improve,” Julian said of Will. “He found the passion. Tennis became an outlet for him. He would hit with anyone who wanted to hit.”
Julian said though he was a tennis coach, he never pushed Pharoah to take up the sport. He said his nephew gravitated to tennis on his own and showed exceptional court coverage at a young age.
“He had like track-star feet,” Julian said. “He turned out to be a really good player…and ended up following my footsteps when he started teaching.”
It was after one of those hitting sessions with Julien when Will asked Pharoah, who was always on a court nearby, if he wanted to hit. They began hitting together regularly, often traveling from one court to another on the same day.
“We would never stop hitting. We’d be out for eight-10 hours at a time at three-four different sites,” Pharoah said. “They didn’t have cell phones back then, so no one could call to say come home. The only thing that would take us away was going to get water.”
“And lemonade,” Will quickly added, “lemonade and a muffin.”
Sitting at a picnic table next to the court where they had just relived days long gone, they shared a hearty nostalgic laugh.