This lover of the game heads a youth-focused, community-based tennis league, teaching basic skills and life lessons.
The positive role that sports can play in a child’s young life can’t be overstated. Work ethic, accountability, organization – it’s all baked in. The Palmer Park Tennis Academy and Leonora King – or “Coach Lee”– have taken tennis, a sport not frequently spotlighted in the Black community, and built a nationally recognized community association. The academy was founded in 2011, a product of People for Palmer Park, an organization created to preserve and celebrate the historic park.
The academy draws children ages 5 to 15 from across the city and surrounding suburbs for tennis lessons and casual play. Some of the kids compete in United States Tennis Association junior leagues, and the best of them may even play individually in USTA-sanctioned tournaments during the winter months.
This past year, People for Palmer Park was forced to cancel the major events they’ve become known for due to the pandemic, but they were able to continue the tennis program with a few safety tweaks – spurred on, no doubt, by being named the 2020 USTA Community Association of the Year.
“It was a total surprise,” King says. The academy won the award at the state level and then the Midwest designation a couple years ago, but she had no idea, that with that, they’d been automatically put up for the national award. “It was really rewarding, because we’re a young organization. We’ve only been around since 2011, and most of the community organizations have been around for years, 20 years or so. It was really cool to get the award and be recognized for what we’re doing.” What would’ve been an in-person celebration in Orlando in March became a virtual ceremony in December. Still, King says, “I was overwhelmed.”
Along with the proper way to hold a racquet, youth enrolled in the program learn skills they can take with them off the court like sportsmanship and physical fitness. King also takes care to teach the young players about Black music and tennis history. “They might know Serena and Venus, but that’s it,” she says. The goal is to “encourage them to be better people, productive people in our society. So, we’re always doing that – besides just yelling at them.”
King started playing tennis at Mumford High School when she discovered that among her schoolmates were “all of the best Black tennis players” in the city. “I had never really seen anybody but Arthur Ashe playing tennis on TV, that was Black. I had never seen anybody up close and personal,” King says. Most had been playing since elementary, but still, she was inspired to get into the game, often heading out to Palmer Park to play.
She’d go on to Western Michigan University, making the tennis team as a walk-on and playing in local tournaments after graduation. Now, King says, “It has become the love of my life to coach. I really had no clue that I was going to enjoy it as much as I do.”
In early November, the Palmer Park Tennis Academy launched a fundraiser to help players with equipment, tournament costs and the like. They exceeded their goal of $10,000 the day before we spoke to King in mid-December.
“(Tournaments) are really expensive. It can be $70 to $120 for a 10-year-old kid to play these tournaments, which sort prohibits a lot of our kids from playing,” King says. “I’ve got kids now that are playing well enough to take it to the next level, and I want to be able to assist the families with that.”
King hopes to be able to enroll more children in the program this year. The academy had been averaging 200 or so per year, but for safety, they were forced to cap the participants at around 80 this past year. Like all of us, they’re playing things by ear.
She’d also like to launch a high-performance day camp for the young people who show extra promise. “I feel really passionate about it. I love tennis and being able to share it with these kids, and still keep it going during this time meant a lot,” she says.
While Black people have a rich history with tennis, it’s not necessarily ingrained in the culture, and King would like to see that change with this new generation. “It’s a great sport. And what’s happening right now is a lot of the historically Black colleges are pursuing (tennis players) in foreign countries,” she says, for lack of homegrown talent. “I want to create a program where we have kids who, if they’re serious, they can pursue college scholarships through tennis.”
Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Company, says …
Ford Congratulates Leonora “Coach Lee” King and The Palmer Park Tennis Academy on being named the 2020 USTA Community Association of the Year. Programming like theirs that provides both athletic opportunity and the chance to grow as people are important parts of youth development. Getting a chance to learn a sport they might otherwise not experience is icing on the cake.
Ford has helped build stronger communities through funding innovative, sustainable programs that enhance the youth experience. This includes ongoing support to organizations such as Police Athletic League (Detroit PAL). Most recently, during these uncertain times, Ford Fund has partnered with Detroit PAL on Critical Conversation, a series of conversations that serve to bring the Detroit Police and our youth together to find solutions that will change and reshape the community. Ford salutes King and the Palmer Park Tennis Academy for opening the doors of new possibilities to Detroit’s youth.
For more information on the Palmer Park Tennis Academy, to donate or get involved, visit peopleforpalmerpark.org.