I’m very interested in exploring the space Black people occupy in the tennis world. Tennis has historically been “a white people sport,” and often times, the Black people that do get involved are the ones who can afford the game’s considerable expenses. This stands as a contrast to basketball, which is a sport many consider to be “ours,” and which costs less to play and thus has a more diverse spread of players in regards to their class upbringing. This story puts two different genres of the Black community together, and looks at the ways white America separates them and the ways white America treats them the same.
I was the only one who protested when they painted over the tennis courts. I remember the morning well because of the way the cool air kept memories of fall tournaments in my periphery, while the rising sun promised radical change in the afternoon. It would’ve been the perfect morning to hit. The parking lot was empty, and no neighbors lined up beneath the clear blue sky with their rackets and balls, no children played on the playground beside the club. The neighborhood was quiet, save for the swish of workers’ strokes. I stood silently and watched as the men decorated their pants in speckles of blue, red, and white—their bright yellow vests spoiling the national aesthetic. Slowly but surely, the service boxes beneath their feet disappeared into three-point arcs and free throw lines.
My peaceful demonstration wasn’t much of a display. I didn’t bring a sign, or chant, or yell. I just stood on the sidewalk and watched the men do their work. My intention wasn’t to make them uncomfortable, but I’m rather certain I did. I’m not sure what my intention was. Every once in a while, one of the workers turned to another and pointed at me. Others shot a glance in my direction. They whispered and laughed. Eventually, a man with a large belly and small clipboard walked over. He smiled a knowing smile and spoke.
“Don’t worry bud, they’ll be ready before you know it,” he said.
It took me a moment to realize that he thought I was a basketball player. Maybe his boss had told him about the vote to replace the courts. That was all the neighbors could talk about. He probably figured I was the head of their charge. The man wore a camouflage hat with the rebel flag on its front. Perhaps I didn’t look like what he expected a tennis player to look like.
I shook my head.
“I’m a tennis player,” I said.
I indicated towards my Roger Federer hat with the stylized F. I could’ve pointed at my Babolat shirt, or the shorts I wore that ended well above the knee. I didn’t want to make him feel stupid.
“I learned to play on these courts,” I clarified.
The man, the supervisor most likely, fixed me with a strange look. It seemed as though he were seeing me now for the first time.
“I see,” he replied.
He turned to his clipboard, tracing his finger across the page as though trying to determine how this new bit of information might correlate with the task at hand. I suppose he realized it didn’t. The supervisor shrugged.
“Sorry, bud,” he said. He turned away.
I continued to stand and watch. Like I said, it wasn’t much of a protest. The air was gentle, and there were no counter protestors waving We want hoops signs. I didn’t rush onto the court and tie myself to the net or anything like that. I only wanted to pay my respects. These were the courts where my father and I played—where I learned the game and spent the happiest days of my youth. On Sunday mornings, on summer days, he and I would wake up early, before the sun rose above the trees beside the clubhouse, while the air was still cool and the morning kept its quiet. We’d spend precious hours, trading forehands and serves, like a prayer before the sermon, until my mother called us home for church. Those days were over now, with no tennis courts within walking distance. My protest was a funeral for a lifestyle lost.
After a while, I turned to head home. As I moved down the street, I heard one of the workers say, “Goddamn, finally.” Another said something about “Freak.” Laughter all around. Then I heard one last voice before I moved out of earshot.
“Black folk play tennis?”
I heard nothing after that. The wind laughed in my direction. I made my way home.
My father once said that the best athletes in this country play all of the wrong sports. It wasn’t until the basketball players showed up that I realized what he meant.
They were tall and muscular, most of them. The ones that weren’t sat on the sidelines. On the hottest days, they played with their shirts off, maybe because of the heat, but perhaps also so that the young ladies headed to the swimming pool might stare at the impressive tattoos and biceps on display. There were some days when even I had to marvel.
One or two of them might have been from the neighborhood, but most of them weren’t. Our neighborhood stretched across multiple streets, around multiple bends, with villages that each contained many, many houses, and yet there were only three Black families in total. The basketball players were of all different shades, but the majority of them had skin like mine.
Their games were like a gospel in their intensity. A gospel with more profanity than a nun had prayers. Most looked to be my age—somewhere in their early 20s—maybe even 30s. Others looked older, a few were teens. It seemed as though their games weren’t always for fun. Some days, they screamed at one another. Other days, they joked and laughed. But no matter what, they came and played. It didn’t rain much that summer, but when it did, they came. Meanwhile, the neighbors hardly ventured near the courts. They were the ones who voted to have them. They were the ones who argued tennis was a dying game, and that basketball would better suit the future of this area. My father said they would’ve been better off building a video game center. I couldn’t help but feel vindicated.
At first, I was pleasantly surprised. My protest, though ineffective it may have seemed, must have had some impact on the workers. They left up a single backboard on one side of the fence, in front of a large area of unblemished, open court where one could move and maneuver without interfering with the basketball game happening next door. I took full advantage of this. Every afternoon, I went out to hit. I was unemployed that summer—having just completed my last semester at university. The real world loomed before me—one outside of education—where interacting with the people who called innocent bystanders freaks and assumed the worst about people like me was par for the course. The only thing that separated me from it was my ability to create the illusion of progress with the development of my tennis strokes. Father promised me I could live at home for free, so long as I “do something.”
For a long time, the basketball players and I ignored one another. We were the two fixtures inside the metal fence—the tall, muscular basketball players enjoying their pick up games, and my small, sinewy frame working on forehands. The ring of their rims interrupted the thud of the backboard, while the thwack of my backhands sat beneath the vulgarities of their trash talk. Every once in a while, a neighbor passed on the sidewalk beside the court. Most ignored the basketball players, but some recognized me.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it?” One man offered while I rested. Another asked me about my father and said everyone missed seeing us hit. This did not make sense to me because it was the neighbors who voted to replace the courts, not my father and I. Before leaving me to my practice, this same man nodded towards the basketball court, towards the players and their profane exertions.
“Don’t worry. Tennis courts will be back in no time.” He winked at me when he said this.
At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant.
My first interaction with one of the basketball players came on a hot Wednesday afternoon. It was so hot that the benches were too sun-soaked to sit on, and the concrete, too hot to touch. The hottest day of that summer, I would imagine. Yet the players showed up in as great of numbers as ever. They played as if the intensity of their competition could overwhelm the intensity of the heat. I couldn’t help but feel inspired. I stood before the backboard, swinging harder than usual, grunting louder than usual, playing as though I wanted to be the first tennis player in history to defeat a wall. By the time I took a water break, my white shorts were drenched in sweat. On the basketball court, the players slapped hands and bent over their knees. They were spent as well. Had we been competing against one another as opposed to the sun, the referee might’ve called it a tie.
I stood by my side of the fence while they stood beside theirs. I couldn’t help but notice them noticing me. I overhead one of them observe, “This nigga out here every day.” There were more murmurs and expletives. Eventually, I heard a familiar phrase.
“Didn’t know niggas played tennis.”
I avoided eye contact and focused on rehydrating. I heard another voice, in so many words, speak my mind.
“Shit. You aint never heard of Venus and Serena, nigga?”
“Yeah, I heard of them.”
“This nigga like Arthur Ashe or some shit.”
People often compared my father to Arthur Ashe. I looked more like a cross between Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Gael Monfils. I wouldn’t correct them though. I didn’t want any trouble. That seemed to be what the neighbors thought the basketball players were. Even my mother avoided the sidewalk beside the court on her morning walks. She had never been one to condone profanity. Especially in young men who looked like me.
The basketball players mumbled amongst themselves and continued to glance. My break was over. I picked up my racket and moved to the backboard. As I began to hit, one of the players shouted.
A few of them sniggered. I ignored this and continued with my forehands. Very soon, my silence became a challenge. The more I ignored them, the more they yelled.
I hit harder and harder. My grunts overwhelmed their chatter. They must have sensed my annoyance. Soon, they began to grunt back. Some tried to mimic me, others shrieked as a small child would, or as if they were in the bedroom making love. The more they mocked me, the harder I hit, and the harder the ball came back. This is why no one beats the wall. Eventually, I took a swing and missed. The basketball players bent over one another, trying not so hard to stifle their laughter. I turned and glared at them. Most looked away, but one, a young man wearing all black with a short afro and a gap between his teeth, glared back.
“You got something to say, nigga?”
I didn’t have anything to say, and even if I had, I wouldn’t say it. There were many of them, and I was the only neighbor out that day. The one who called out stared me down. The other players watched. I noticed his leg shaking. It seemed as though he were as nervous as I was. I couldn’t risk testing his courage. My mother lectured me long ago about the things some men would do for the defense of pride.
“Don’t be shy. You got something to say?”
“No, I’m sorry,” I replied.
“Shit. That’s what I thought. Little white talking nigga…”
I moved to the sideline and packed my things. As I passed the basketball court on the outside fence, I overheard one of the older players say to the one who’d yelled, “Yo, chill Keith.” A few looked at me as though they wanted to say something, perhaps to apologize, or maybe mock me again. I didn’t stay long enough to find out.
My mother filed a complaint that I couldn’t imagine was the first. It really was all the neighbors seemed to talk about that summer—what the courts were, what the courts would be, or what the courts should’ve been. Many worried about their children, who they’d wanted the basketball court for in the first place, being unable to use the recreation area because of the players’ daily games. These parents wondered why their dues should go up while foreigners from another zip code used the courts for free. I could hardly sympathize with this argument. During the first week after the gates re-opened, the new basketball area sat as empty as the tennis courts ever had. My father even mentioned something about a sign that went up in nearby suburbs, advertising the new court to anyone who wanted to use it. This was most likely the neighborhood association’s attempt at conjuring the illusion of money well spent. I suppose they assumed that whoever showed up would look like the majority of the people who lived in the neighborhood. It’s like what my father always says about assumptions.
I steered clear of the basketball court for a while. I replaced my daily tennis practice with morning jogs. I ran at least two miles every day, sometimes as many as five. My body remained thin and long, but my legs grew strong.
It did not take long for me to realize that my status in the neighborhood had changed. A lot of the adults and teenagers in the area knew me from the tennis courts, but just as many did not. Every evening, as I jogged over hills, off sidewalks, between villages in our area, I saw many of our neighbors. Many of them glared at me. Rather quickly, I deduced the reality—they thought I was one of the basketball players. To remedy this, I modified my look. I wore shorts that ended well above the knee. I shaved my knotted Afro to a tight military buzz. I even wore a shirt that read TENNIS on the front. None of these things made a difference.
“Go home!” one teenager shouted at me on a blue evening in July. He clearly didn’t understand that my home was just around the corner. That he could look from his back porch and, without squinting, see mine. I wanted to tell him, but I kept running. Just as I’d known how far the basketball players would go to defend their pride against threat, I knew how far the neighbors would go to defend their home against invasion. I didn’t dare fight back.
For as much as I disliked the basketball players’ presence, I developed some sympathy for them, given our common dilemma. It didn’t take much for me to imagine what they were going through. My father spoke of an occasion when he saw a man parked in the lot beside the court, blaring “You Belong to the City” from his vehicle while the players played. My father believed these actions were inevitable, but my mother did not. She filed another complaint.
After a while, I figured that it would be okay for me to jog past the basketball court again. I imagined the basketball players had larger matters to attend to than making fun of me, and I was right. On the first day I saw them, they all stood outside the fence, pulling at the gate. There was a lock on the outside—one that was much fancier and difficult to break than what a person might find on a high school locker. When the players saw me approach, one of them stepped forward.
It was Keith, the same boy who’d yelled at me a few weeks before. Now, he jogged towards me, down the short grassy slope leading towards the sidewalk. His long arms flopped by his side. Behind him, the other players stood, tugging at the lock, trying different combinations, crowded together beneath the no trespassing sign posted on the gate. I paused my workout and waited to hear what Keith had to say. When he stopped in front of me, he spoke with a soft voice, much softer than it had been the other day, and smiled as well. I could tell that this was his form of an apology.
“Have you got the code for the lock?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, because it was true.
“Damn.” Keith turned towards the other players, who were now watching our interaction. He threw up his hands, as if to say “no luck,” and some of them smacked the fence. Keith looked at me and shook his head.
“White folk, man. You believe this shit?” he asked.
I hesitated to answer. I thought of how my father would respond. He was the one in our family always talking about white folk. His grievances had always been this way, but that summer especially, there was much cause for complaint. With the videos appearing on the news, and the evening protests downtown, my father sat at the dinner table with some new revelation, some universal wisdom about white folk every night. His lectures preached on how they would do this, and we should do that, until the whole world was split between a them and an us. Even before the vote to replace the court, my father assured, “White folk won’t never let go of their country club sport. Not for no negro game.”
There was a time during my childhood when I rolled my eyes, or defended white people against my father. I argued that there was no difference between Black people and white people, and that he was racist for insisting otherwise. After these past weeks of neighbors’ scowls, I wasn’t so sure. Regardless, I knew how to respond.
“I know,” I said, invoking my father. I shook my head and grinned. “White folk.” Keith laughed at the way I said this. He smiled.
“All right, well take it easy brother.”
“You, too,” I replied. I supposed we were cool now.
I imagined that would be the last time I saw the basketball players. It looked as though the neighborhood had won. Simple as that.
But the next time I ran by, it wasn’t the players struggling outside of the fence. It was the head of the neighborhood association—a blond woman holding a clipboard, tugging at the gate to the area. There was a crude, makeshift lock on the fence, and the old one was gone. The woman looked exasperated. The basketball players were nowhere to be found. When I drew close, she turned towards me with a snarl.
“Do you know who did this?” she asked.
I shook my head and kept running. I could see her watching me as I moved down the road. She drew out her cellphone and dialed a number. As far away as the next block, I could hear her yelling at someone.
“…then they cry about oppression…”
I turned the corner.
When they stationed a police officer in the parking lot beside the courts, I thought it would be safe to use the backboard again. The basketball players wouldn’t bother me, and the neighbors, finally appeased, would leave me alone.
It was on a beautiful afternoon, with few clouds in the sky, children playing on the playground, and a number of cars outside of the clubhouse, that I made my return. I headed to the court that day with racket and balls in tow—wearing my short shorts and short hair. When I arrived at the recreation area, I saw the police officer sitting in her car with the windows rolled up, looking down at her phone. She glanced up at a white father shooting free throws with his son, but seemed uninterested in her current assignment. She made eye contact with me as I passed. When I turned toward the gate, her door opened.
I turned around. The police officer waved me back. She wore a look that discouraged disobedience.
“What village do you live in?” she demanded.
“Westcreek,” I replied. When the officer heard my voice, she looked surprised. Then she relaxed. I spoke quietly, with a different dialect than the basketball players, and I think this took her off guard.
The officer didn’t even check her device to see whether I told the truth.
“You’re good,” she said.
I made my way towards the courts. They looked more like they did on the day I watched those workers finish them than they ever had since. The neighborhood must have had them repainted. The red, white, and blue looked fresh—with the basketball players’ scuff marks and sweat stains all but erased. I imagine the neighborhood association wanted to forget the players altogether. I’m sure they hoped that no one would remember who had invited them to come.
I set my things down beside the bench close to the backboard. As I unpacked my racket, I saw a few cars roll into the parking lot, music blaring. The police officer stood outside of her own, leaning on its hood. I positioned myself in front of the backboard and began to hit. Out of the corner of my eye, over the movement of my arm, I saw Keith hop from his car. He moved in strides towards the court with a ball in hand, speaking back to the others that followed him with a smile. They were hardly to the sidewalk when the police officer saw.
“Hey! Stop right there.”
Slowly, without drawing too much attention, I stopped hitting and listened. I could not hear everything the officer said, but I understood the message. She kept her hand on her taser while speaking to the players. There were only three of them, all wearing red shirts with black athletic shorts. The hem of their clothes swayed with the breeze while they conducted their argument. I heard one mention a village that did not exist. The officer didn’t check her device. She shook her head.
“No, you need to go,” she told the players.
Keith slapped the ball. He looked all around, and then made eye contact with me. It was as though he believed I had some power over the situation, any more than he did. I held his gaze for a moment, then turned towards the backboard. I heard expletives as the players moved towards their cars.
I continued to hit. I was happy to be playing again. Some of the neighbors, who only days ago had yelled at me to go home, now smiled and waved at me when they passed. I smiled back.
The police officer left at the end of each day, so the players started showing up at night. My father often saw them as he returned from his delivery. He said that they were quieter than before, and fewer in number. My father laughed at the fact that no matter how many locks, passcodes, or no trespassing signs the neighborhood put in their path, the players found a way to play basketball. “Them boys love that sport,” my father declared. I admired this as well.
The neighborhood association saw things differently. They posted a police officer in the parking lot at night. After a few days, the players stopped showing up once more. My father mentioned being followed through the neighborhood on his way home from work. My mother stopped going on her occasional evening stroll. I stopped venturing out too late after dark as well. The images on the news that summer discouraged any of us from trying our luck. We didn’t want any trouble.
Some of the younger people in the neighborhood took issue with the heightened police presence. With everything else happening in our country, they seemed to make some connection between it all. Some spray-painted curse words in the parking lot beside the courts. Others threw toilet paper and empty bottles onto the sidelines. How they managed to do this without the officers arresting them is beyond me. But they managed.
The next time I went to hit against the backboard, there were two officers present, both men. One was bald and wore sunglasses, while the other had a full head of brown hair. The bald one looked to be around my father’s age—maybe forty or fifty, while the other looked to be around mine. Neither had I ever seen before. They stopped me as was usual, but were not as polite as the woman before. The younger one held my arm while the other spoke.
“Name and address?”
I provided them with both. The officers spent extra time checking their devices while I held my tennis gear and waited. They seemed unimpressed with my diction and more concerned with my history. They asked me questions about my parents’ names, the neighborhood, and other trivia. I answered all correctly. Finally, the one put away his device. The other said, “One hour limit on the basketball court.”
“I’m here to play tennis,” I replied. I held up my tennis racket for proof. The officers stared at me for a moment, reevaluating.
“Same rules apply.”
I kept my practice short that day. Perhaps if I had known that would be the last time I ever used the courts, I would have stayed longer. The officers watched me hit the entire time. When a car drove by and the driver yelled, “Fuck you,” and the younger officer yelled “Fuck you” back, I thought it would be safest to leave.
The last time I walked to the tennis court, I did not even reach the fence. It was poor timing that I arrived just as the officers made the arrest. It was the same two as the day before, and when the bald one looked at me over Keith’s body, pressed tight against the hood of his car, I held my tennis racket up to show that I was only there to play, hoping he would remember. The officer stared at me, and when I backed away from him, he shouted, “Drop the weapon!”
I laid my tennis racket on the ground and put my open hands in the air. My father taught me to do this, should a situation like this one ever occur. One of his dinner table lectures from years past. The bald officer turned to his coworker.
“Grab him, too.”
By this point the neighbors began to gather around the recreation area. There were murmurs and gasps, and grins, and nods of affirmation as if to say, “I told you this would happen.” There were cellphones and cameras held up as well. The younger officer made his way over to me, and as he put the handcuffs on, I kept my mouth shut and my body still. It was difficult not to resist as he jerked my arms behind me and shoved my legs forward. But as I watched Keith flounder like a fish against the bald officer’s forceful arms, I knew what not to do. Even in my stillness, I couldn’t help but let my eyes water.
“He lives here,” one of the neighbors said. She pointed at me. “His parents live in this neighborhood. I’ll take him home. He lives here.”
The white woman moved towards me. She may have been one of my mother’s friends. The officer and she walked away from his car, and there was a discussion about my fate that I could not hear. When the conversation ended, the officer walked back over, and handled my body with more care than before. He removed the handcuffs. When I turned and looked into his eyes, he gave me a worried smile and spoke slowly, as if I might not understand.
“Be real careful out there, bud,” he said.
I wanted to ask about Keith, but I knew that he was on his own. As the officers drove away, I turned to see the woman who’d spoken on my behalf standing before me, perhaps to see if I was okay, or maybe waiting for thanks. I nodded my head towards her in acknowledgement. “Come on,” she said, reaching out to me. She led me home.
JUSTICE FOR KEITH was what some of the signs read. Others read ACAB or some other variety of anti-cop rhetoric. The events in our neighborhood made the news. Teenagers and people my age, and older folks as well came from all over to stand on the sidewalk in the mid-summer heat and protest. My father brought them water bottles and Gatorades on days the sun sweltered. My mother wrote letters to the neighborhood association. Its leaders decided that the basketball courts should leave.
I did not attend any of the protests that summer. My protesting days were over. With no more recreation area to occupy my time, I found a job at a local tennis club, teaching white children the game many of their parents were surprised I knew. My father called it a “reparation hire” though my mother said I earned it. Some of my students were the children of our neighbors, who had apparently concluded tennis wasn’t so bad. They talked to me about what a shame it was how everything went down, and how the neighbor’s association should have predicted what would occur. “You build basketball courts, you’re going to get basketball players,” they said. Those could’ve been my father’s words.
Coaching was not playing, and some days, I missed the game. But at the end of long shifts, I had little to no desire. One evening after work, I ignored my exhaustion. I drove into the city, into a park where there were courts. On them, I saw players who looked like me, serving, volleying, running, and smiling beside a basketball court full of trash talk and laughter. I waited for an hour, but there were no courts available. I drove home.
Joel Worford is a writer from Richmond, Virginia. His work appears/is forthcoming in trampset, The Lumiere Review, The Laurel Review and more. Joel is the 2018 recipient of Longwood University’s Outstanding Creative Writing Student Book Award. He received a Best of the Net nomination in 2019 for his short story “The Warning Sign,” as well as a Pushcart nomination in 2021. Joel serves as Fiction Editor at K’in Literary Journal.
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