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Thrilled with African-Americans in genteel sports

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


I was not old enough to experience the full power of the Joe Louis phenomenon in black America. In Black America, Louis, aka the "Brown Bomber," was a genuine hero from 1937 to 1949. He was seen as a great man, a towering personality who dominated and shaped the hopes of African-Americans in every corner of the nation.

My grandparents and parents and their neighbors would gather at someone's home around the radio when Louis fought. The evening would be an event, complete with food, drink and music. Every blow delivered in a fight was accompanied by a cheer or a groan, depending on who hit whom. When Louis won, as he always did during the glory years, his triumph was a vicarious victory for individual blacks. And, yes, tens of thousands of black boys dreamed of being the next Louis.

I mention Louis as background to a discussion of the three undisputed heroes in black America today -- Tiger Woods and Venus and Serena Williams.

Woods dominates golf, a game that blacks had a hard time entering just a short time ago. But at age 26, he is the golfer to emulate. Basketball great Charles Barkley put Woods' greatness in context with a double-entendre: "I'm just glad that I'm alive to see a black man dominate a sport like that."

African-Americans take Barkley's "that" to mean the game that until now had been the domain of white people with money and leisure time. I have been in various parts of the country in different settings -- bars, barbershops, restaurants, hotel lobbies, airline terminals -- when Woods has been shown on television. Each time, blacks gathered around to watch.

They watch with pride and identification. Blacks have never cared as much about the sport before. It was a game many thought was out of reach, and they saw the racial line as the main hindrance. Secretly, blacks never doubted their physical ability to play the game.

With Woods, merit and ability were never issues. He has proved, as Barkley said, that an African-American can dominate a sport like "that." As a result, black kids, encouraged by their parents, are seeing themselves as future Tigers.

One black father told me: "Before Tiger, I thought my boy was talking foolishness when he said he wanted to play golf. I'm behind him 100 percent now. Golf's for us, too."

What Woods has done for black people and golf, the Williamses have done in tennis, also once seen as a white sport.

Just a few years ago, few blacks followed tennis of any kind, especially women's tennis, with its usual lineup of Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati and Anna Kournikova. Black women simply could not get a foothold on the court, and blacks were not interested.

Now, on game day, blacks gather around the tube to live vicariously through the Williams sisters.

Sports writer Frank Deford: "The Williamses simply are, suddenly, tennis today. They're it. The whole sport. . . . It's just Venus and Serena now -- better, and even more becoming. Speaking some French in their joint victory-and-defeat speeches, after Serena beat Venus in the Roland Garros final earlier this month, was just so attractive -- especially at a time when Europeans find Americans so self-centered and superpowerishly insensitive to others."

So, yes, the Williams sisters beat other women -- white women -- on the court. And, like Tiger Woods, they are seen as possessing both athletic prowess and intellectual heft. An excerpt of a recent letter from a black reader is salient: "The Williams sisters are great to me because they are winning where they couldn't play before."

Although I do not agree that any sport is inherently race-specific, I understand the euphoria over Woods and the Williamses. They are objects of black pride.

Win or lose, Woods always carries himself with dignity, and many blacks feel ennobled. In the same way, Venus and Serena seem to have learned the power of dignity. Gone are those trash-talking moments, the arrogance that threatened to alienate even black fans.

Whites ask me all the time why African-Americans do not view Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Clarence Thomas as heroes. Why do we adore jocks instead? I do not have the whole answer. I do, however, know this: Unshaded by politics and cronyism, individual sports, which tend to be ones that whites dominate, are the true test of ability -- merit.

Woods and the Williamses answer an essential question: If blacks are permitted to compete in golf and tennis, would they dominate here as they do in most team sports? We know the answer to this question as it relates to these three athletes.

In his book Take Time For Paradise: Americans and Their Games, the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, Renaissance scholar, president of Yale University and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, observed the uniqueness of tennis and golf and their relationship to class and privilege:

"Tennis and golf . . . have the most genteel, not to say aristocratic and ancient origins, and have longest maintained their aura of privilege. A tennis court is not an urban phenomenon; it is a "courtly' one. . . . Golf is the only sport where one can have a servant do the work while one does the play, and where there is a gallery to watch it all."

The Williams sisters and Woods successfully invaded this genteel universe, and the majority of African-Americans are thrilled.

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