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Take Your Game to the Next Level

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Take Your Game to the Next Level

Remembering Althea Gibson.
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley More by this author
May 15, 2010 at 10:00 AM

We know Althea Gibson primarily because of her tennis accomplishments. She was the first African American woman to win Wimbledon in 1951 and then went on to win that championship again; and she was the first black woman to win what became the U.S. Open two years in a row. She was an extraordinary talent on the tennis court.

I think that there are seven or eight lessons we can learn from the life of Althea Gibson. Not the least of which was that she was born in a shack to parents who were South Carolina sharecroppers. Her story just proves once again, that “it ain’t where you begin but where you end.” What determines your altitude in life is your attitude. It ain’t about how you start but how you finish.

I think we can learn from Althea Gibson what it means to be disciplined. She was, in fact, a high school dropout, but because of her tennis talents she was sent to college. Once she got there, she disciplined herself, buckled down, and made the most of that opportunity. She ended up graduating at the top of her class. She understood that going to college, even as an athlete, is ultimately about getting an education. A lot of young folks today don’t get that you can let your athletic skills give you an opportunity to go to school, but once you get there, it’s ultimately about getting an education.

We can learn a little something from Althea Gibson about grace notes, too. Look at how they hate today on Venus and Serena Williams. We can look at what those two girls have endured and think about how passionately we feel about them—so just imagine what Althea Gibson must have had to endure. But she handled herself with talent, style, and absolute grace. And speaking of grace notes, whenever she was asked about Venus and Serena (although she didn’t do a lot of interviews), she’d say, “I had my day. This is now their day. Don’t talk to me. Concentrate on them. Focus on them.” Now that’s grace.

We can learn from Althea Gibson a little something about focus. She said back in those days the only thing white she’d focus on was the ball they played with. (Back in those days, the tennis ball was white.) She said that she survived those situations of the racist, segregationist era by focusing on the white ball. I guess that was her way of saying, “Whatever frustrations I have with white folk I take out on that white ball.” But she stayed focused on her mission, which was to win those championships and represent so that the sisters coming behind her would have an opportunity.

Sadly, I have heard that she died broke. Well, first of all, understand that they didn’t win money back in her day; they won trophies. This also shows that she really played for the love of the game. You’ve got to love what you do. You can’t be in it for the money. Althea Gibson was a pioneer obviously. You can be a pioneer, too. Take your game, whatever it is, to the next level and do something right where you are that nobody else has done. And while you’re at it, learn how to be multifaceted. Do you know that Althea Gibson didn’t just play tennis—she also played golf?  And not just played it but integrated the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She was on the professional women’s golf tour.

And finally, she kept it all in perspective. Once she became a star, she started a foundation to work with young people to give them a chance so that years later we could hear and know the names of people like Lori McNeil, Chanda Rubin, Zina Garrison, and Venus and Serena Williams. And these people, of course, will open the doors for others to come along and be better than they are.

Thank you, Althea.

About Author
Tavis  Smiley
Tavis Smiley is a broadcaster, author, advocate, and philanthropist. Tavis Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change.  Smiley is currently the host of the late-night television talk show Tavis Smile Continue reading