Pickleball Points: It’s all about the racket sports

Late in the 1950s, a tennis program was started in Salisbury, Md., and it was led by the black sheep of tennis, Bill Riordan.

I say “black sheep” because the traditional tennis world later looked down on him for his various non-traditional ploys, and a small example was his personal support of the outrageous antics of Polish tennis star Stanley Stanpenzack, who played tennis in a World War I helmet and then drank beer out of it afterwards.

So upset were the bluebloods then running tennis, they wanted to have poor old Stanley banned from tennis worldwide. They had fallen for Riordan’s P.T. Barnum-type gymnastics because Stanley’s character and stories were invented by Riordan to drum up publicity for his tournaments.

Riordan would later become more famous as the manager of Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, and the million-dollar “winner take all” tennis matches in Las Vegas from which legal proceedings led to his eventual departure from the world tennis stage.

But before his famous period, Riordan in 1954 relocated to Salisbury and invested in a small clothing retail business. He was the son of the wealthy president of Stern Brothers Department store in New York, and it wasn’t long before he organized some local businessmen to form a junior tennis development program by recruiting kids from other sports.

There were only five of us that first year, but the program developed, and literally hundreds of tennis players followed to become outstanding tennis teaching professionals. Some well-known local graduates are Dave Marshall, Bobby Hush and Rod Dulaney. In Cambridge, Md., the superintendent of schools, James Busick, led a similar program, soon leading to a Salisbury versus Cambridge rivalry. His son, Jimmy Busick, led that group.

Our little band from Salisbury and Cambridge were all then referred to, in disparaging terms, as “public courts tennis players.” We wore Bermuda shorts and T-shirts as we started to play tournaments around the Mid-Atlantic region, and against some of the better private schools.

Years later, I heard a humorous story from a tennis player who played for a well-known school in Baltimore. He related how his team sat around the lunch room talking trash about these Eastern Shore hicks from Salisbury who were to play them that afternoon. He then laughed and said it was like a major storm hit them when we arrived and blasted through them in less than an hour.

The thing is, we didn’t even think we were good, because Jimmy Busick was one of the top juniors in the country, and we, the Salisbury “public courts” players, always had him to reckon with.

After several years, we formed a Salisbury/Cambridge team and began to play the national junior tournaments in New York and strengthened the Maryland Junior Davis Cup Team.

We were not the only players being belittled. A 15-year-old “colored” boy (sadly, then the common reference to African-Americans) named Arthur Ashe couldn’t even compete in his native state of Virginia, but rules were changed to permit him to play at Clifton Park in Baltimore in the Maryland Junior Championships.

Dr. Robert Walter Johnson, a wonderful gentleman, had taken Ashe, mentored him, and then dressed him in proper tennis gear, while our guys slugged away in our Bermuda shorts and T-shirts. I played a long match against Ashe in that first tournament, and Busick went on to easily beat him in the finals.

We played the Eastern Sectionals that year in New York, where another young player, Roger Flax, New Jersey junior champion, said this about Ashe: “Arthur and I played a long match in the quarters, and after the match, he gently shook my hand and thanked me for an enjoyable match. He was the nicest, kindest, humblest, quietest guy I had ever played against, and I have not forgotten that moment at the net, shaking hands.

“When my dad and mom offered to take Arthur and me to lunch at the club, and the dining room hostess refused to give us a table, we were shocked, but not at all surprised. We ended up going to a local deli and had the best pastrami sandwich ever… and Arthur loved it and couldn’t stop thanking my parents. In those days, many of those ‘elite’ clubs didn’t want certain kinds of people around them!”

Flax, who founded his own leadership development consulting company in 1970, Motivational Systems, went on to write: “Then, I met this quiet, blond-haired kid from Cambridge, Md., who hardly talked… but proceeded to quietly whip Arthur in the finals. I asked this amazing lefty where he planned to go to college, and he said University of Maryland.

“At that very moment, I decided to go to Maryland, to hopefully play with the kid, who happened to be Jimmy Busick. What an amazing player he was — the ‘Rod Laver’ of the junior circuit. Who knows how far he would have gotten on the pro circuit if major pro/money tournaments existed in the early to mid-60s? The B&B boys — Busick and Baker — were great teammates of mine from Day 1 as a Maryland Terp.”

We brought our Bermuda shorts back to the Eastern Shore later that summer, and Busick would be seeded fifth in the National Boy’s Championships in Kalamazoo, ahead of the likes of Charlie Pasarell and Arthur Ashe. Busick suffered one of his few losses ever to Clark Graebner in that year’s national junior championship.

Busick and I both also played in the Middle Atlantic Sectional Junior Championships in West Virginia that summer, where I bunked with Ashe in a community bunkhouse. That first night, after “lights out,” I heard the other kids say some of the most vile and hateful remarks I had then ever heard directed at another human. An hour into it, I challenged the entire room to a brawl, hoping some of the other T-shirts would join me, if needed.

That’s the night I learned that bullies are cowards — all talk and no action. Ashe later told me quietly, in great humility, after winning Wimbledon, while waiting to be presented the championship trophy, he thought, “I wonder where Jimmy Busick, is because Busick, and a few others like him, should be here instead.”

As it turned out, Busick and I played for the University of Maryland, including one of only two years in Maryland’s history that undefeated teams were fielded by Maryland. They dressed us up in proper tennis clothing, and joining us was Roger Flax, that “Jewish” fellow from New Jersey mentioned above.

Tired of being stigmatized, we all had that something to prove with our rackets, and it was Busick and Flax’s final doubles match that gave us the winning point for Maryland’s first-ever Carmichael Cup Victory for being the top athletic university in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). The remainder of the team — also mostly “public courts” players — could have played at positions one or two at most East Coast universities.

A decade later, after we both served in uniform, Ashe won the men’s singles at Wimbledon, as well as the U.S. Open, and was ranked No. 1 in the world. Meanwhile, I went to work for Wilson Sporting Goods as their liaison with world-class tennis players including Jimmy Connors and Billie Jean King, both “public court players.”

In my travels to all the racket sport majors around the world, it always impressed upon me how well everyone from the entire globe got along when together in the locker room waiting for matches or sharing practice courts.

It wasn’t the skin color, religion, sex or type of apparel, but the racket sport that was the common denominator among all these players from different cultures with different beliefs. That is the beauty of sport and the lesson so many need to learn.

Note: Frank Deford’s article, “A Small Town Moves into the Big Time,” published March 2, 1984, can be found in Sports Illustrated’s Vault, and describes Salisbury’s role in the tennis world.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.

By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point