``When I was a kid, I was a pretty fair athlete and I used to go to the playground and play baseball,'' recalls Jim Smith. ``I used to watch some kids play tennis but I never thought about doing it because at that time tennis was a `sissy's game.' But I saw some kids playing for money, and being a little street urchin, that whetted my appetite. So I got in there and those guys took my nickels like they were taking candy from a baby. And I got angry about it. And that's how I got into tennis.'' Thousands of youngsters are indeed fortunate that he did. For after playing in tournaments, traveling, and learning about tennis and life, Smith has spent the last two decades passing along these lessons to new generations of inner city children.
His ``classrooms'' are at the Franklin Field Tennis Center in the Dorchester section of Boston. The facility houses seven indoor courts and three outdoor courts on land that is leased from the city for $1 a year. It's here that Smith holds forth as chairman of the Sportsmen's Tennis Club and as the mover and shaker of a junior program that has acquainted more than 10,000 kids with the game.
He believes strongly in starting them young -- at six, seven, or eight -- when they can form early attitudes about social values, manners, and self-control.
``Any kid whose parent is smart enough to want him to have a good tennis background, or more important, to have a good background in the social education of dealing with other people, this is what this place is all about,'' he says. ``We tolerate no harsh playing here. A child learns to play without putting his hands on anyone or pushing anyone. They learn to respect the rights of another person.
``If they don't learn any more than that, they've learned something that carries over into every other aspect of their lives.''
Besides respecting their fellow players, the youngsters who frequent the club obviously take pride in maintaining an orderly, clean environment.
``These kids police this place themselves,'' Smith observes. ``On the inside of this building, this place is immaculate, and we have 60, 70, 80 kids in here everyday.''
The Sportsmen's Tennis Club itself actually got off the ground in the early 1960s. It wasn't until 1973, however, that the Franklin Field Tennis Center was completed and opened its doors.
When the school busing controversy hit Boston in the 1970s, the club was almost decimated, Smith recalls, because many people were afraid to go into the area. ``We had to figure out how we were going to survive,'' he explained. ``And, the only thing that we felt we could do was to build a program here that was so good that if any kid in the city of Boston decided he wanted to play tennis he would have to come here. The equivalent of what he could get here, his folks couldn't afford to pay for. Simple. That's all our program was.''
Most of these youngsters might never have had the opportunity to learn the game if not for Jim's dedication and efforts. But under his guidance, some 60 of them have gone on to college via full-time tennis scholarships, while many more have moved on to higher education via partial scholarships.
The club offers a variety of programs for adults as well as kids. The adult program includes intramural competition of all kinds. Women's leagues, a men's traveling team, tournament play, and lessons are included in it. ``We have a full assortment of programs for the adults,'' Jim explained, ``to stimulate them into playing more. Because the money that this place -- and Franklin Field has always shown a profit -- takes in, is plowed right into the kids' programs. The result is, we don't have to raise an awful lot of money to keep going.''
The junior program, open to those between six and 18, consists of three 10-week winter sessions and two five-week summer sessions. The three 10-week sessions cost only $1 for any youngster who is a resident of Boston.
The summer program, in addition to tennis instruction, offers a variety of other activities including swimming, softball, running, and volley ball. Smith explained that these other sports teach skills that enhance a child's tennis game.
Jim and the staff at Franklin Field have built continuity into the program. They've designed a system of instruction that won't vary with changes in staff. Instructors are groomed from within the program -- and it seems to be paying off.
``I'm going to say to you that we have the best tennis teaching staff in New England,'' said Jim, ``and you're gong to say to me `How do you know that?' Well, recently a local supermarket chain started a junior series that they sponsored for us. We had 10- and 12-year-old kids playing. We had four of the top girls in the 12s. One of our girls ended up in the semifinals, the other girls ended up in the finals. In the boys' competition, one of our boys got to the finals. In the 10-year-olds, our little girl won, and one of our boys got to the finals. Last weekend there was a big adult tournament over at the Charles River Park. All the top tennis players in this area, particularly from schools, were there. You know who won that tournament? One of our 17-year-olds won that.''
If the proof is in the pudding, it appears that the training program developed by the club is indeed working.
Smith told me there is an elitism in the club -- not based on race, age, or size, but on the ability to play tennis. The children who have developed their skills are not always open with those who have not reached a certain level. Jim feels that this is not a deterrent to a child's confidence, however, because the system of training at the club is structured on a building-block system where each child can note his progress as his lessons progress. So the desire to improve and constantly progress is instilled in each child.
``You get what you earn,'' he said. ``Every lesson is designed to give a kid a success. At the end of every lesson kids have competition and they begin to find that they can do things better than the other guy -- or they strive to do it better than the other guy, and every kid comes out of a lesson on a high note.''
The impression is that the Franklin Field Tennis Center and the Sportsmen's Tennis Club offer more to the community than sport and recreation. The club transcends ethnic and racial barriers so often present in the inner city. Jim explained, ``When we have team tennis a lot of members play. And team tennis is for the member who isn't the best tennis player in the world. They form their own teams and there's a sociability about the teams. Usually the best-organized team wins. So you can't have a well-organized team unless you socialize. Now here's where the rub comes. You'll find that all those teams are integrated.''
This seems to be the underlying message of the club that Jim Smith stands so firmly for. Tennis is fun. It's challenging. It offers everyone an opportunity to learn many kinds of lessons. It is this ``tennis everyone'' attitude that brings success to the Sportsmen's Tennis Club of Boston.