Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

A Movie That Stirred the Emotion

I have dreamed about my son and my daughter’s future. I still do. What responsible parent doesn’t? You hope they will have an even better life. You envision them using their gifts to reach higher heights.

This is what I saw in the movie “King Richard,” a movie about a complicated father who wanted his kids to have a different life, one that would take them off the streets and out of poverty. Richard Williams, played by Will Smith, envisioned the day his daughters would one day compete and win at Wimbledon. He drafted a strategic plan even before they were born. He would do whatever it took to make them champions, yet without compromising their need to mature and excel in other areas. He refused to sacrifice his daughters on the altars of ego and wealth. He determined to protect their childhood, steering clear of coaches who wanted to put them on the fast track and agents who wanted them to sign so that they could line their pockets.

This was not an abusive father like the one characterized in Andre Agassi’s Open, a father who set up a ball machine and forced his son to hit a million balls a year. For all his success, Agassi could never escape the shadow. Writing his memoir, he begins the first chapter with the words, “I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning and all afternoon, because I have no choice.”

It was on a recent flight from Entebbe to Doha that I watched the movie. Once the film began, I forgot I was confined for hours to a seat in Row 31; instead, I was transported back to the early 60s, when I lived a fair amount of my life on a court. For fifty-five years I played competitive tennis. It was my passion until an Achilles tear and a hip replacement ended it all. The various scenes in the movie brought back a flood of memories—the sound of a ball reverberating on a court, the movement of a stroke that punishes the opponent, and the determination to play the edges. This was the world I grew up in. It was a world of endless practice, of tournaments and trophies, of certain highs and lows, satisfying victories and agonizing defeats.

“King Richard” is, in part, the story of Venus and Serna Williams, who would dominate and transform women’s tennis. But it is more a story of their father. It’s an odd title, for it sets one up to witness the tale of an autocratic, obsessive control freak. Rather, Richard is portrayed as a loving father determined that his daughters escape the world of Compton, with its gangs and drugs and run-down tennis courts. He committed his life to bring them up “by the bootstrap pursuit of excellence” in a world that undervalued and underestimated girls of another color.

Thanks in part to Richard’s “maniacal mission,” his daughters advanced and entered a culture of country clubs and rich kids. They moved to the tennis camps of Florida, where it was/is all about rankings and privilege and competition to move to the top. This is an environment where kids are pushed to their limits, where it is common to act out—yelling, throwing their racket, calling close calls in their favor—if the game is not going their way. As I often witnessed in more wealthy clubs like those in La Jolla, they often face the scathing criticism of parents if they double fault or hit the net. These are the true King Richards, obsessed with living out their own dreams and building their kingdoms through their kids

Maybe this film touched a nerve and stirred emotions because I was reminded of my own father—not because he was King Paul. My dad afforded me opportunities, but he never demanded I make it big on the court. Every Saturday he took me to lessons. He allowed me the time to hit endless balls against a backboard.  In competing, I seldom hobnobbed with the rich. I was from the east side, living in a middle-class home. My dad drove a bread truck and my mom worked at a drug store comparable to Walgreens. Occasionally when I played at Morley Field, dad would sneak away from his route and stop, if only for a moment, to observe. My parents sacrificed, both working long hours, so I could take lessons and buy equipment and play, but it was never forced. They simply wanted me to find my dream. I was ranked, and I did earn an athletic appointment to the Air Force Academy, but God had other things—far better things—for me.

It’s hard to see how it would have happened had my father not said more than once—“I trust you. You make the decision.”

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