By Bill Simons
John McEnroe’s dad was elated. The young John Patrick McEnroe Sr., who they called JP, had just received the fabulous news.
Among all the hundreds of fiercely competitive, go-for-the-jugular students at Fordham Law School, he had graduated No. 2 in his class – wow! Bursting with pride, he rushed home, to share the news with his his young bride, Kay. “Sweetheart,” he boasted with deserved pride, “I just finished No. 2 in my class.”
Kay paused, then coolly asked, “Why weren’t you No. 1?”
Does the legendary tale point to both to the intelligence of the McEnroe clan and their feisty competitive ways, or what?
Today, after years of problematic health, it was announced that JP, 81, had passed. Simply put, before the earthshaking arrival of Richard Williams, Chris Evert’s dad Jimmy and he were the prime fathers of American tennis. More than anything, to the public, JP was the long-suffering man twitching ever so slightly up in the friend’s box, almost heroically keeping his paternal cool as his son exploded on court, while the tennis world seemed to be shouting back at the kid – “You cannot be serious!”
Ever loyal and unblinking, JP was calm while his son unleashed his sky-is-falling fury. Somehow JP gave us perspective and helped settle the troubled waters.
Then again, the classic Rudyard Kipling poem “If” (made famous by Wimbledon, no less) tells us, “If you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs…If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you…Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. And – which is more – you’ll be a man, my son.”
Well, man, your son raged loud against tennis civilization, but you always kept your cool. You may never have read him the riot act., like the Borgs and Federers did. Still, few would object if they gave you a medal.
While it was McEnroe’s mother Kay who gave us one of the most self-evident sports commentary ever – she said her son was “competitive and relentless in playing sports” – JP always seemed to sigh when asked about his son’s behavior. We always detedteded a certain sense of resignation – don’t exceptions have to be made for geniuses?
JP confided, “I didn’t like the negative attention. How could I like it? But on the other hand, I thought if John wasn’t that way he wouldn’t be a winner. He had to let it out.”
One person who didn’t seem to get out much was his mom. John confided, “My mother Kay would never show up unless she knew I was going to lose.” But for years JP was an omnipresent witness on the tour.
It didn’t matter if it was Wimbledon’s proper Centre Court, a leaky hockey rink in Zimbabwe, a vast soccer stadium in Spain or, of course, Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open, JP was always there to see his son battle the best: Borg, Connors, Vitas, Lendl or that upstart kid, Pistol Pete Sampras. Fiercely loyal, JP always had John’s back, from the time his kid got kicked out of the Port Washington Tennis Academy to the very end.
The only child of Irish immigrants, John Patrick Sr. grew up in hardscrabble New York in the early 1940s. His father came to America as a 12-year-old, and took jobs as a messenger and a driver. His Irish mother headed west and crossed the Atlantic in 1927, the same year flyer Charles Lindbergh traveled east and famously flew over the big pond.
JP told Irish Central Magazine that his son “was good right away. He just had it, [there was] something in his genes, and he loved it. I was 31 and John was 8 when we first played at the club. I beat him regularly, but only until he turned 10 – and then he beat me.”
Patrick Sr. rather quickly became a key lawyer in a big Manhattan firm. It didn’t hurt that he handled the affairs of the No. 1 player in the world. “JP was a tireless advocate for his sons,” said one veteran tennis agent. “Very smart, very tough – but never greedy. And his kids are that way too.”
A savvy insider, JP knew well how to navigate the inner sanctums of the game. Still, noted Stanford coach Dick Gould, “He was a really fun guy to be around. He wasn’t a tennis dad, but he was supportive of all they did. He never interfered and he told more Irish jokes than were even in existence.”
JP, noted writer Nancy McShea, loved to joke about his middle son Mark, an attorney. He’d quip, “I like to call him my normal son – the lawyer.”
At one point JP hoped to become the CEO of the ATP. That didn’t happen, but with his sons having claimed 18 Grand Slam titles, one could argue that he was the No. 1 father in the history of men’s tennis.
McEnroe’s longtime agent Gary Swain poignantly put things in perspective. “JP gave John and Patrick the opportunity. He loved tennis and the identity of being their dad. But he didn’t get in their way. There was a healthy distance. He taught them to be strong and on their own.
“For decades now, John and Patrick have have seen things as they are. They deal squarely with reality. JP always thought the first step for people to improve was for them to see things as they are. For decades now, they haven’t made excuses. To this day, John puts it on the line.
“JP always expected a lot of them. He and Kay were both strong. Both were Irish New Yorkers who grew up in a tough environment. But New York is very different from London. You’d say what was on your mind. But London is very different – it’s understated.
JP had been suffering for months…fortunately John had time to be with him. They said their proper goodbyes and the family was very proud of him and the man he was.”
Also reporting: Nancy McShea