They call him “Coach Lenny”. The boys and girls scurrying around the court, chasing yellow tennis balls, look to the 68-year-old for encouragement and direction. Simpson tosses ball after ball toward them, watching as they work to send it across the net, in-between the lines.
“There you go, that’s better! Much better” he says over several hand claps. The praise brings a smile.
Lenny Simpson’s days spent with his One Love Tennis program are payback. He was in the same situation as these children decades ago, as a five-year-old growing up on Ann Street. Simpson had no idea that there was a tennis court next to his home. The introduction came by way of his childhood desire for a soda pop.
“Mr. Nathaniel Jackson, right around the corner from my house, was a great tennis player himself,” remembers Simpson. “I would see him go around the corner every day, this guy dressed in white t-shirt, white shorts, white socks, white shoes and a racquet in his hand. He would disappear. I’d say ‘where is he going dressed like that?’, every day around the same time. He’d always come back with a Coca-Cola in his hand. That intrigued me. At five years of age, any time you can get a soda that your parents didn’t want you to have anyway, hey, why not. I said ‘Mr. Jackson, where did you get that soda from?’ He said ‘right around the corner at the tennis court’. I said ‘how can I get some of that soda?’ He said, ‘you have to go to the tennis court to get this Coca-Cola’. That’s how it all kind of started.”
The court belonged to Dr. Hubert Eaton, the Simpson’s family friend. Dr. Eaton has won tennis championships in the American Tennis Association, the circuit for African-American players at the time not allowed to compete in the United States Lawn Tennis Association events. It was at Dr. Eaton’s court where Simpson met Althea Gibson, one of his first idols and the player who would break racial barriers in tennis around the world. Dr. Eaton had taken the young lady into his home in 1946. Gibson became the first African-American to win a Wimbledon Singles title, to play at the U.S. and French Open Championships.
“Towering, just a bigger than life person,” Simpson says of Gibson. “She was tall, lean, lanky. The way she carried herself and came across. To me as a five-year-old, I was in awe. It was like ‘am I really seeing this person, with this kind of ability?’
Gibson. Eaton. Jackson. Simpson remembers hiding under the hedges between his house and Dr. Eaton’s court, watching them play tennis. His mother did not want her son “bothering the adults” next door, but the five-year-old was enamored with more than just their tennis games. He watched the way they moved, the way they carried themselves. He took in the things they said, the advice they’d give, in tennis and in life He endured spankings when Mom caught him next door. Go to the 4:40 mark in the podcast to hear what a young Lenny did to convince his mother to let him play at Dr. Eaton’s court.
Simpson’s mother never saw him hit a tennis ball until his first tournament. She relented into letting her eight-year-old play in the ATA Southeastern Boys Championship in Durham, but only if she could drive him to the event. She ended up taking Lenny, Leonard Hawes (Simpson’s doubles partner) and Hubert Eaton, Jr., to what would be a life-changing event for mother and son. Mom watched from the stands, tears in her eyes, as her son competed.
“I lost that match, and I was so angry and crying, and showed bad sportsmanship,” he says. ‘I’ve never seen somebody come out of the stands so quickly. My mom was out of that stand, and grabbed me hard by my forearm. She took me up to that net, grabbed me by my arm and said ‘you are going to shake this young man’s hand’. I shook his hand with tears in my eyes and crying.”
Simpson says he never forgot the lesson he learned in sportsmanship that day. It is the foundation of the ministry he created with “One Love Tennis”.
“It stemmed from that very day,” he says, accentuating the last three words. “Sportsmanship is more important to me than the winning, and the competition. That will take care of itself. It always has, it always will. Good character, that’s a different ballgame. That has to be instilled. That has to be taught. That has to be disciplined in an individual. That to me is the basis of “One Love’. Having that integrity. Having those morals and values for these boys and girls that we have from six years of age to thirteen years of age. We purposely picked that age because every house that is built, my father always said, there has to be strong foundation.”
That same tournament in Durham is where Simpson met Arthur Ashe, who along with Gibson became a mentor to this young, budding tennis player. Ashe was in Durham as part of the ATA Junior Development Team, comprised of some of the best young African-American tennis players across the country and directed by Dr. Walter Johnson of Lynchburg, Virginia. It was not a coincidence the two young players would meet.
“He was six years older than me,” Simpson says. “When I saw him playing, and watched his demeanor and the way he handled things, there was something so different about him. Such maturity, such a quietness about him. But on the tennis court, it was like the quietness before the storm. He was a fierce competitor, but he never said a word. The same poker face, the same demeanor whether he was winning 6-0 or town 4-0.” Hear more of Lenny Simpson’s first impressions of Arthur Ashe at the 33:20 mark of the podcast.
Simpson would later learn Dr. Eaton and Althea had already told Dr. Johnson about “this kid in Wilmington, North Carolina who has some potential’. They wanted Dr. Johnson to make him part of the Junior Development Team, which traveled across the country playing events. A year later, Simpson became the youngest member of that team, and the relationship with Arthur Ashe began.
Simpson says the lessons he learned from Arthur Ashe in the years to come, on and off the tennis court, are too many to count. One he witnessed as a 13-year-old at the National Boys Championships in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Simpson calls one of the crossroads of his life. The 18-year-old Ashe had won his quarterfinal match against top-ranked Bobby Siska, and was told he would play his semifinal match 45 minutes later. The other semifinalists were scheduled to play their matches the next day. Simpson says the tournament director even threatened to default Ashe if he did not play.
“I’m irate,” Simpson says. “As a 13-year-old, I am just furious. I’m standing there saying ‘Ashe, say something! Aren’t you angry? This is not right! This is not fair? This shouldn’t be done to you!’ He turns around and says ‘Lendward, come with me. I’ve got to go across campus. I’ve got to take a shower. I’ve got to play my match in 45 minutes’. So we’re walking across campus, and I’m just furious at him. He didn’t say a word, not a word. Then, he said ‘Here’s what I want you to do. I’m going to go up and take a shower, because I’ve got to get myself as refreshed as much as possible to play this next match. I want you to sit in this lobby. I want you to sit here and think about this whole situation. When I come back downstairs, I want to know what you want to do and how we need to handle this’.”
When Ashe came back downstairs to the dormitory lobby, he asked Simpson about his decision. Simpson told Ashe he shouldn’t play, should complain and make sure something is done about the situation.
“He said ‘okay, you have the right to feel that way,” is how Simpson remembers Ashe responded. “He said, ‘now I’m going to tell you why we need to do this. Why I need to walk back over there and play this match’. He simply said ‘because we are opening up the doors for others who have to come behind me, and us You’ve got to play the 18’s as a Junior at Kalamazoo. By the time you’re 18, hopefully, this kind of thing will be gone’. That’s all he said.” Ashe ended up losing that semifinal match, but made the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team, another first in tennis history for African-American players.
Simpson went on to become the youngest player to qualify to play in the U.S. National Championships (now the U.S. Open) in 1964. He won his first-round match, and in the second round he played against his mentor, Arthur Ashe. For more of what they talked about during that match, go to the podcast at 47:00.
Simpson would continue his tennis career at East Tennessee State University, playing #1 singles and doubles and later becoming team captain. Simpson was the first African-American to play World Team Tennis, and later qualified and played at Wimbledon. He achieved a lifelong dream of owning his own tennis facility, opening the Center Court Racquet Club in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1977. While he would come home to visit family, Simpson had no intention to move back to Wilmington. Then he was invited to be a celebrity guest for the 2011 North Carolina Azalea Festival. Lenny talks about what changed his mind at 26:35 of the podcast.
Lenny Simpson was featured in the “Breaking the Barriers” exhibit presented at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010. The exhibit has traveled across the country, educating fans on the history of the game. Simpson was inducted into the North Carolina Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011 and the Black Tennis Hall of Fame in 2014. The Greater Wilmington Sports Hall of Fame inducted Lenny Simpson in 2012, and just this year Simpson spoke on behalf of the Eaton Family when Dr. Hubert Eaton was enshrined into the GWSHOF. Hear Lenny talk about how much that honor meant to him at the 55:15 mark of the podcast.
“One Love Tennis” opened in 2013. It now operates at community centers, afterschool facilities and city parks across Wilmington. Simpson has introduced thousands of children, ages six to thirteen, to much more than just a game.
“This is a sports ministry,” he says. “We just happen to use the tool of tennis for this ministry, to let these kids know that there are more important things than hitting a fuzzy, yellow tennis ball. There are other things in life. There are your Christian beliefs and where you stand with Jesus Christ. I don’t mind saying that and standing up for that for anybody at any time. That’s what we’re all about. It’s based on Biblical principles. It is reaching out to the unfortunate. It is reaching out to the underserved boys and girls, to give them the same opportunity that I had in life.”
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