David Dinkins remembered as avid tennis player and steady patron of the sport

When my wife walked into our bedroom and told me softly that David Dinkins had passed the night before, my head began to swirl with memories of the time I spent covering his historic 1989 mayoral campaign and first few months in office as a reporter for New York Newsday.

There was that night at the Apollo Theater after the 1988 New York Democratic presidential primary election when then Manhattan Borough President Dinkins stood triumphant with the Rev. Jesse Jackson after the reverend had won the city of New York while losing the state race, presaging a victory for Dinkins in the coming year.

There was the campaign fundraiser hosted by black tennis legend Arthur Ashe, whom I found to be extremely gracious and incredibly humble as he seemed to go out of his way to give me an extensive one-on-one interview.

And there was the photo of Dinkins holding my then five-year-old son, taken in his office a week before I left New York for a job in Detroit.

But the one memory that always pops up immediately whenever I hear or see Dinkins’s name is this boast he offered more than once: “I taught Arthur Ashe how to hit a backhand down the line.” Then, he would demonstrate the swing.

At the time, I was still feeding a basketball jones and had not become addicted to tennis. So, while I felt he was joking, I was never quite sure.

But what I was certain of was that the Big Apple’s first and only black mayor was an avid tennis player and staunch supporter of the sport. If you have watched the televised U.S. Open tournament matches over the years, you’ve likely seen the cameras center on Dinkins and his wife, Joyce, at some point, as they were fixtures at the annual Grand Slam event. Over the years, Dinkins played with some of the sport’s top stars, including Ashe, Chris Evert, John McEnroe and Billie Jean King.

Dinkins helping to honor black tennis trailblazer Althea Gibson at the 2004 U.S. Open.

Since his passing on Nov. 23, at the age of 93 (His wife passed about six weeks earlier.), Dinkins’s passion for tennis has been the central theme in tributes and comments from those who knew him, including, to my surprise, members of the tennis club I belong to in Silver Spring, MD.

In an email to a club doubles group, Bob Muehlenkamp sent a link to a New York Times article about Dinkins and his role in helping the United States Tennis Association secure a 99-year lease agreement for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the annual U.S. Open tournament. While mayor, Dinkins also paved the way for expansion of the tennis center and negotiated a deal with the FAA to reduce the number of flights in and out of LaGuardia Airport during the tournament.

Muehlenkamp said he was field director for Dinkins’s 1989 mayoral campaign. “Even during the height of the campaign, he played several days a week – and played until he was 88,” he said.

Another club member, Dave Pullen, said he interacted with Dinkins on several occasions when he was executive director of the United States Tennis Association’s Mid-Atlantic section and the former mayor was a member of the USTA board of directors.

“He was an enthusiastic proponent of the game, and especially outreach programs that brought tennis to under-served youth,” Pullen said. “And he was a fierce competitor on the court.”

I reached out to some black tennis leaders for some reflection on Dinkins’s love for the sport.

Bob Davis, president of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame, told me he and Dinkins partnered in several pro/am tennis events and that he was impressed by Dinkins’s dedication to growing the sport in all communities. Davis said he nominated Dinkins for induction into the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2012.

“He was a great man, a big supporter of tennis at every level,” Davis said.

The BTHF profile noted that Dinkins was the first black to serve six consecutive terms on the USTA Board of Directors and described him as “a living legend who has dedicated his life to helping children, providing leadership in good government and promoting the growth and development of tennis in African American communities.”

Dinkins was a life member of the American Tennis Association, the national black tennis organization, which released a statement applauding his support for the organization and his effort in raising millions to fund tennis programs for kids throughout New York City.

“David Dinkins will be remembered for his service as a true servant leader fighting for the underserved and disadvantaged communities and being a champion of the tennis community as a whole,” the ATA statement said.

David Norman Dinkins was born in Trenton, N.J., but spent most of his life in Harlem, where he carved out a career as a lawyer and politician. He rose through the ranks of Harlem’s Democratic machine, eventually becoming Manhattan Borough President and a member of the group of black Harlem powerbrokers known as the “Gang of Four” (the others were Percy Sutton, Basil Paterson and Charles Rangel).

A Howard University and Brooklyn Law School grad, Dinkins was among the surviving Montford Point marines awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2012.

Dinkins’s love affair with tennis began while attending the annual tournaments at the Shady Rest Golf & Country Club in Scotch Plain, N.J., the oldest black country club in the country at the time, according to the American Tennis Association. It was there where Dinkins first saw and became inspired by Arthur Ashe. They developed a close, enduring friendship.

During the 12 years he served on the USTA board, Dinkins became an indispensable and influential voice, according to a statement by the organization.

“Dinkins was a great friend to the USTA and to the sport of tennis,” the statement said. “His unparalleled charisma, peerless wisdom, singular grace and heartfelt compassion touched countless lives – and made every one of those lives better.

“Always the leader, Dinkins was committed to sharing the sport with as many people as possible – particularly with people of color – because he understood so well the sport’s power to enhance lives.”

Dinkins also was committed to sharing knowledge, and one person whose life he enriched was Katrina Adams, a former Women’s Tennis Association player and the first black to head the USTA. Adams said she learned a lot from Dinkins as a USTA board member before she became president.

“He just kind of took me under his wing,” she said. “He became like a second father to me. He called me his second daughter. I called him boss.

“I had a great deal of respect for his knowledge, for his experience, for his love of tennis and for his love of kids,” Adams continued. “He treated everybody with kindness and dignity.”

Adams said she enjoyed playing with Dinkins occasionally on Roosevelt Island, where he would reserve a court every weekend for two hours.

“He didn’t move very well, but he loved to play,” she said. “He always had a diverse group of people, which I think was intentional on his part, part of his wanting to bring people of like minds together.”

Dale Caldwell, founder of the Black Tennis Hall of Fame and the first black to serve as president and CEO of the USTA Eastern Section, said he also got to know Dinkins through USTA.

“When he retired from the board, I was elected to informally take his seat. He was a great mentor of mine,” Caldwell said.

Dale Caldwell and David Dinkins. Courtesy Dale Caldwell

“I have never met anyone who cared more about kids than Mayor Dinkins,” he added. “He asked about my daughter Ashley so much that we called him her third grandfather.

“My second favorite tennis moment was watching Andy Murray win the US Open with David Dinkins sitting on my right and Sean Connery sitting on my left. Most people do not know that Mayor Dinkins and Sean Connery were very good friends.”

Caldwell said he once played a celebrity doubles match with Dinkins as his partner during a U.S. Open tournament.

“I am sure he was joking about teaching Arthur Ashe the down the line backhand,” he said. “But they were very close.”

As the years passed after I left New York, and I became more immersed in tennis, I often felt I missed out on an opportunity to hit some tennis balls with the first black mayor of the greatest city in the world. All these anecdotes make me regret even more that I never took the initiative to get out on a court with him. Maybe, he could have taught me how to hit a backhand down the line.

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