'Nothing but Trouble': Remembering Althea Gibson As the U.S. Open officially begins, fans are remembering Althea Gibson. Fifty years ago, Gibson was the first African-American to win the prestigious competition. Sue Stauffacher, author of Nothing but Trouble: The Althea Gibson Story, talks about the tennis legend's life and her unique challenges in the sport.
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'Nothing but Trouble': Remembering Althea Gibson

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'Nothing but Trouble': Remembering Althea Gibson

'Nothing but Trouble': Remembering Althea Gibson

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: a tennis center for urban kids, and yes, they've got game.

But first, the U.S. Open is scheduled to begin this week. Among the star attractions will be the powerhouse Williams sisters, Serena and Venus. They'll also be on hand for the tournament's tribute to the woman they credit with opening up professional tennis, the late Althea Gibson. Fifty years ago, she became the first African-American tennis player to win the title at the U.S. National Championships - now the U.S. Open.

Gibson's accomplishments are the subject of a new children's book, "Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson." Its author is Sue Stauffacher.

She joins us from her home office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Hi, Sue.

Ms. SUE STAUFFACHER (Author, Nothing but Trouble: The Story of Althea Gibson): Hi there, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Sue, you're the author of several children's books, one of which is about the legendary blues singer Bessie Smith. So what about Althea Gibson's story intrigued you?

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Well, there are two things that are really interesting about her to me. One is that she had a lot of anger, a lot of energy, and she learned how to master it and become, you know, the greatest female athlete in the world, as reported by Sports Illustrated magazine in 1957 and 1958. And the second thing was just the time period and how so many people mentored her to help her self actualize, to help her become the great athlete that she was meant to be. But I think without their help, even Althea would say - and has -that it wouldn't have happened that way for her.

MARTIN: Talk about the title, "Nothing but Trouble." Why that title?

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Well, you know, Althea will tell you herself she pretty much made everybody mad: mom and dad, teachers, police officers, she just - she actually said I didn't like people telling me what to do. I was a traveling girl, and I hated to go to school. And take it from me, you can get in a lot of hot water thinking like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I love - there's a little - you've got a little snapshots in the - or the illustrations are presented in the form of snapshots, like from a scrapbook. And one of them is from a teacher who says half the time, she doesn't even return from recess. I see a lot more of Althea if I taught lessons on the playground.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Right.

MARTIN: But the other one is from a policeman who says she's a fast runner all right, but you can't make a sport out of nicking sweet potatoes. That's against the law. Did she really do that?

Ms. STAUFFACHER: She really did do that. And, in fact, in that particular instance, he caught her and she begged for mercy and he let her go. And then her friends dared her to go back and grab it again, and she did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STAUFFACHER: But I have to say, you know, she really didn't get in much more trouble with the law than that. She had so much energy and she was kind of wild, but she wasn't naughty. She was just having fun.

MARTIN: She just had a lot of energy.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: She had a lot of energy and, you know, one of the other things she also said was she just couldn't see the point of going to school when you could be playing a sport. I mean, it just made no sense to her. And if things didn't make sense to her, she didn't do them.

MARTIN: Well, she did - well, this has to be said: She did go on to graduate from college, so that's worth knowing.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: No, actually she dropped out of school many times, but she ended up getting her high school diploma at age 21. And then she got her college diploma three years later. So it had nothing to do with intelligence. It just had to do with desire.

MARTIN: And it has to be said that a lot of professional athletes today don't go to college and drop out of school for, you know, for whatever reason. But explain about Buddy Walker. He's a character in the book.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Right.

MARTIN: He noticed Althea's athletic ability. Tell me about him.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: He was an accomplished saxophonist. He was considered Harlem's society orchestra leader. But apparently, that job wasn't enough to pay the bills, so during the day, he was sort of like a recreation supervisor.

And at this time - let's see, we'd be right around 1940. They would help the kids release their energy, and they'd just let them run and they'd play stickball and paddle tennis and all kinds of street games, and they'd have somebody watching over them. And Buddy Walker was one of those people. And here he looks at this girl kind of running ragging around the streets and he watches her move, and it occurs to him, you know, she could play tennis. And so he was not well off, but he went out to a second hand store and he bought her a tennis racquet.

MARTIN: Wow. You know, racism was a factor in her life. And frankly, Serena and Venus Williams will tell you - at least their parents will, that it's been somewhat of a factor in their lives, too, in terms of the way they've been received at least early in their tennis playing days. How did you decide to deal with that issue, because this is a children's book, but you know, children live in the world and are exposed to these things, so what decision did you make about how to talk about that…

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Well, tennis was such a young sport in 1940, and it was so predominated by white people and there was so much racism at the time. The book itself does not really discuss racism. For me, I really wanted those two elements that I talked to you about - the mentoring element.

That was what I wanted to be the main story. But the racism piece was a very big part of it, and it actually centered around the U.S. Open of 1950. That was her big color barrier to break, was to get into the U.S. Open. Jackie Robinson in 1949, you know, had been with the Brooklyn Dodgers for a year or two and there were a number of influential African-Americans who were hoping that Althea Gibson would break into the tennis world in much the same way.

And so they approached people in the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, and they got a pretty good reception. And Althea was invited to a couple of tournaments and she had a pretty good showing. And everybody was getting kind of excited when all of a sudden, she stopped being invited to tournaments. And the reason was that she didn't have enough experience.

MARTIN: It was a way of keeping her from getting enough tournament experience to be invited.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So what do you hope people would get out of your book? What do you hope kids would get out of the book, and what do you hope other folks would get out of the book?

Ms. STAUFFACHER: I'd love to see people just, when you reach out to a child who has talent like Althea, you could do that, it could be something very - that would take a day or even an hour and you could change history. They're all these great athletes and scholars, you know, waiting to be discovered.

MARTIN: Sue Stauffacher is the author of "Nothing but Trouble: The story of Althea Gibson," and she joined us from her home office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sue, thanks so much.

Ms. STAUFFACHER: Oh, thank you, Michel.

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