In the era of the Williamses and the Woodses, lightbulbs are going off in the heads of lots of African-American fathers--men who figure they have the perfect plan to lead their little ones into the promised land of professional sports. People might tell them they're crazy to think they can guide those knock-kneed kids all the way to Wimbledon or the Masters, but they know that back in the day, people said the same thing to Richard Williams and Earl Woods. And who's laughing now? ¬∂ This is a story about one of those black fathers and the beginning of a journey in tennis. Meet Tom Stafford, a fun-loving, hard-charging, big-dreaming, expletive-spewing, 54-year-old multimillionaire. "Just because I've made some money, I don't think I'm any better than anyone else," he says after parking his Lexus in his driveway in the tony Philadelphia neighborhood of Overbrook Farms. His large house is crammed with art, including an original Romare Bearden sketch. "I know I'm a nigger," Stafford continues. "I just happen to be a rich nigger."
Stafford's nine-year-old son, Jabari, and seven-year-old daughter, Emira, are riding their bikes on the sidewalk. Even though neither child is much taller than the net, Tom says that for the past couple of years he has spent $25,000 a year on their tennis, and he has put together a little team of adults to help make them pros. There's Tom Allsop, the 23-year-old coach from England who lives in the Staffords' carriage house and gives the kids almost daily lessons. There's Endre Witthoeft, a personal trainer who does Pilates and plyometrics with the children. There's Laura Selby, who comes on Sunday to do yoga with them. And there's Leland Hardy, a former sports agent and a longtime business adviser to Richard Williams, who works on the children's marketing possibilities.
"Until black people put ourselves in total control of everything--the facilities and training of our kids--we won't make black kids into champs, because we run into subtle racism a lot," Stafford says. "Just to rent a court you deal with that s--- because white people hate that we're good.
"I know for a fact that if my kids keep going, they'll be the Number 1 players in the world one day. My daughter's gonna kill these bitches. She's gonna be on the tour by 11. I guarantee it. Mr. Williams ain't the only crazy motherf----- out here."
In case you haven't noticed, Stafford curses every second or third sentence. His wife, Michelle, isn't thrilled about it, but as little Emira clings to his knee, he says, "I want my kids to know the raw f------ me."
The Staffords may look like the next Williams family because they're a black nuclear unit storming the tennis world together, led by an egotistical, free-thinking dad. But Richard Williams turned to tennis to make money for his then working-class family. Tom Stafford, who spent his childhood on welfare, is already rich: He owns a computer-repair business that services large companies, and he has various real estate holdings. Wealthy families don't usually pursue athletic glory, but the drive that helped Stafford succeed in business is powering his dreams for his kids.
"I'm a competitor," he says. "I like to win, and I like to do s--- that people think you can't do. I gotta get up every day and have a challenge and battle the naysayers and say, 'I told you so.' That's my high. And you know the saddest thing about us African-Americans? We're the least likely to dream. We're so cynical, we don't wanna dream."
Stafford is also raising his kids to have a political consciousness that'll make them less Venus and Serena Williams than Arthur Ashe, or maybe even Malcolm X. "These black athletes who say, 'I'm not obligated to my community,' that's horses---," Stafford says. "Because in America, when the Man sticks his foot in your ass, you've got one place to run, and that's back to the community. And if you can do something for the community, you have to be as outspoken as you can. We need the guy who made it to reach back and say, 'I'm still one of you. My job is to try and pull you up.' I'm raising my kids to use tennis as a platform for African-American issues, not just to be jocks."
About a year and a half ago, during a vacation in Florida, Tom took the children to Richard Williams's house so Williams could see them play. The afternoon meeting didn't go quite as the Staffords had expected. Perhaps Tom was looking for some sort of blessing that Williams wasn't interested in conferring. Both Jabari and Emira recall that Williams was gruff with them. "He was so blown away by the kids, but he didn't want to admit it," Tom says. "I don't get headaches, and after two hours with Richard I had a headache. He f------ wants you to believe he's Jesus, sayin' he's a billionaire and writes poetry and is a filmmaker. It was so bizarre. If you sit down and talk to him for five minutes, you'll see he's an absolute ... I don't wanna say moron, because it's not about academics, but the man makes no common sense or any other kind of sense."
If Malcolm X were alive today, he'd probably have a clothing line, and so will little Emira. Tom Stafford is a relentless businessman, and he sees a hole in the market. "Everything should have a revenue stream attached to it," he says. "If these kids are gonna go out there and play tennis, I'm gonna make some money off of 'em. And there's a huge void out there in children's clothing. I see a line of tennis apparel called E-Smooth, with a logo of Emira running to hit a ball with a little ponytail flailing in the back, kinda like one of them Michael Jordan silhouette things." (One hopes Hardy is better with licensing than he was with athletes' contracts, having negotiated running back Ricky Williams's much-derided low-pay, high-incentive deal with the New Orleans Saints in 1999.)
Emira is sitting nearby. "So," a reporter asks her, "you're gonna have a clothing line. Are you excited about that?"
"Yes," she says politely.
She pauses for a moment, as if searching for the answer in a closet in her mind. "Because I like to dress up," she decides. "I like to play swords, and we have to dress up."
"Do you want to be a pro?"
"Yes!" she says enthusiastically.
This time she can't find the answer.
"Because Daddy told you to?"
It's possible that Stafford wants this more than his kids do, but his wife says no. "Being the age they are, someone has to step forward and say, 'This is what we're gonna do,'" she says. "As parents, you have to be a voice for your children."
At practice Emira hits western-grip forehands from the baseline and has six- and seven-stroke rallies with Allsop. She won't let a ball get past her without diving for it, so every third rally ends with the 40-pound girl flat on her face, her knee or elbow scraped. Time and again she peels herself off the court and grimaces as she walks back to the baseline. When Dad asks if she's O.K., her face says no, but her mouth says yes. For her, tennis is a contact sport.
"She's an actress," her mother says lovingly. "She likes drama."
Emira goes on hitting, first a few from the baseline, then a forehand volley and then, since she's ambidextrous, overheads with her right hand and then her left, Luke Jensen-style. She can also serve with both hands, and her coach wants her to continue doing that. Even though she's never played in a tournament and never really had a serious match, her team is preparing her for big-match situations. She hits short, angled forehands and backhands; the ball lands in the service box and veers off the court. She can do this on command.
Jabari is not ambidextrous, but he is equally impressive for his age and 4'5" height, whacking the ball with a full-sized racket. Sometimes he follows through on his backhand so hard that he bangs himself in the forehead.
Although Jabari and Emira have not tested themselves in junior tennis, some coaches who have seen them say they're for real. "Jabari's phenomenal," says Bill Adams of the Adams International Tennis Academy in Weston, Fla. Could he turn pro someday? "Absolutely," says Adams, "not only because of his natural talent but also because his dad can afford it. But his dad has also instilled a work ethic in him that I'm impressed with. He's molding a champion."
When Jabari and Emira are at home, they often wrestle, and Jabari, of course, gets the better of his little sister. It looks as if he's beating her up, but she can't get enough of it. When they face each other on outdoor public courts or the Radnor Racquet Club's indoor courts, it's pretty much the same. He keeps beating her, and she keeps coming back for more. They trash-talk even when no one's keeping score. Emira's backhand lands long by just a few inches, and Jabari loudly calls, "Out!"
"That was not out!" Emira protests.
"Oh, yes it was!"
"O.K., you two," Tom yells. "No fat-mouthing, or Daddy'll warm them cakes!" That means, Can the trash talk because you're close to getting spanked. Stafford says he never misses a practice. "Lots of parents bring their kids to tennis practice and leave them," he says. "I've never done that. Some parents say to me, 'Oh, isn't this drudgery?' I'm loving every minute of it. When I see my baby hitting the ball as well as someone twice her age, you don't know what a high that is. It's better than drugs."
Throughout the practice adults walking by stop, shocked to see pip-squeaks with such form and power. People say to the kids, "I'm gonna see you at Wimbledon one day."
"Tell 'em, 'Absolutely!'" Dad says.
Jabari and Emira are obviously talented and precocious, but who knows if they'll make it to the pros? Who knows how tall they'll grow? Who knows if they'll develop the character to deal with real pressure? Regardless, this is a family doing something together, chasing a dream as a unit. Tom really enjoys his children. "Kids are not something I ever wanted to have," he says. "I was having a great time in my life. But then I met Michelle, and Jabari kinda slipped out. And I was so blown away by him that I said I want another one, and I worked and worked until I got her."
Adams, the Florida coach, believes Stafford is not a typical tennis father. "We see so many parents who are pushing their kids," he says. "I don't think Tom is. I think Tom is facilitating. He's making it easier for his kids to have an opportunity."
Stafford, an average athlete who ran track in high school and started playing tennis for fun at 20, says he's not in this to capture an athletic glory he never had. He's in it to say, "I told you so," and to be there as his kids grow up.
"I love my kids, and I want to be a real father," he says. "Tennis is one of the components of being a real father. I got into business to make billions of dollars, and I never made billions, but millions is nice. Tennis is the same. We're providing a support system to take these kids to Number 1. But becoming good college players and good people, that's good too."
Stafford is raising his kids to have a political consciousness that'll make them less Venus and Serena Williams than Arthur Ashe, or MAYBE EVEN MALCOLM X.
Wealthy families don't usually pursue athletic glory, but the drive that helped Tom Stafford succeed in business is POWERING HIS DREAMS for his kids.
Photographs by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce 3
TRAINER Endre Witthoeft
TENNIS PRO Tom Allsop
DAD Tom Stafford
MOM Michelle Stafford
BUSINESS ADVISER Leland Hardy
Jabari Stafford AGE 9
Emira Stafford AGE 7 RECESS While the children take time to be children, the tennis combine put together by their father focuses on the business at hand.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
Photographs by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce 3
POUND FOR POUND
Despite their youth and small size, both Jabari and Emira are hard hitters and fierce competitors.
Photographs by Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce 3
KEEP DRIVING, DAD
Making them tennis champions was Tom's idea, but Emira and Jabari seem to buy it wholeheartedly.