The Kamala Harris-Arthur Ashe Connection

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Bill Simons

An African-American tennis standout reflects on family, race, values, heritage, the reckoning we need and the woman his father delivered: Kamala Harris

New York in the 50s was a giddy time for sports. A boy in Brooklyn, Maynard Driver, was well aware that Jackie Robinson had just integrated baseball. Goodness, you’d see the great pioneer walking around the neighborhood.

But tennis, not baseball, proved to be Maynard’s calling. Friends introduced him to the game on public courts, and he was good. Soon he entered the emerging circle of African-American players who were just beginning to shake the sport’s supposedly unshakable boat.

Long before Arthur Ashe, Driver encountered the legandary black trailblazer, Dr. Walter Johnson, who taught so many kids, including a lean Virginia teen who would forever change tennis.

Driver also met Althea Gibson, became the first black captain of Columbia University’s tennis team, studied medicine at Howard University, and then in 1963 he did his residency at Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital. As the first black gynecologist in the East Bay, he faced countless obstacles. His surgeries were relegated to the middle of the night and there was a stream of nuanced prejudice. He had to work twice as hard as others. His son Brad, a superb tennis player, told IT that when his family moved into the then all-white town of Piedmont, residents sought out city officials to howl in protest.

Dr. Driver persevered – and his practice thrived. One of his patients was an immigrant, Shyamala Gopalan Harris. On October 12, 1964, he delivered her first child, Kamala.

Dr. Driver was impressed with Shyamala, a native of India and an engineer and biologist at UC Berkeley. Brad recalled, “My dad had a very close friendship with Kamala’s mom. She gave our family a very lovely letter about what an amazing doctor and friend my dad had been, and how much he cared for her. She was a single mother of two black girls and he would always make sure she had everything she needed. She really appreciated his care for her medically, and as an Indian woman raising kids in the Bay Area. He did that a lot with most of his patients. He just took incredible care of them beyond the medical aspect.

“As Kamala gained office in San Francisco and became our senator, we were like, ‘Wow!’ The really cool thing is that her mom and mine were so involved with black unity and civil rights. After my dad met my mom, they opened a women’s shelter. He was the chief gynecologist at Cal for years. They always gave back, as did Kamala’s mom. You see that in Kamala a lot. It’s a legacy of hard work, higher education, excelling and understanding the speed-bumps and roadblocks that will be presented to us as black people, even in a liberal place like the Bay Area.

“We grew up playing tennis at the Berkeley Tennis Club and we spent as much time as possible with Dad, despite higher-ups at the hospital having racial tendencies. We’d walk around the hospital, and the orderlies, the nurses and staff would just love him because he treated everyone with incredible respect, regardless of what they did or how much they made. He was always trying to help people make a better life. He was an amazing surgeon and loved his profession, and he so wanted women to excel and create opportunities for themselves. He not only wanted to take care of them medically, he wanted to empower them. He’d ask them, ‘Hey, how’s life? Is there anything I can do to help?’ When we walked around town, people would say to me, ‘Oh, wow – you’re Dr. Driver’s son, aren’t you?’”

Sadly, Shyamala Harris, who conducted groundbreaking research on breast cancer, died in 2009 at age 70, from cancer. Her friend Dr. Driver also lost a battle to cancer at just 57. Brad remembered that his dad “encouraged bravery and passion. He wanted others to feel strong about themselves. Those things were so important to him.”

And so was Arthur Ashe.

Brad explained, “Whenever Arthur would come out to play the Pacific Coast Tournament in Berkeley, he’d stay with us. It was such an honor. He was the kindest soul, just the nicest man, just perfect. And as a kid, Arthur faced the same things we did as young blacks, going to clubs and being in a white tennis world. Arthur made it all worth the fight. He had a passion – we have to change wrongs.

“I was a ballboy as a kid. One player threw his racket and it barely missed me, just like with Djokovic. But Arthur and Stan Smith stood out. They were not just tennis players. You knew what they stood for, even though it was difficult for Ashe.

“Arthur had fortitude. I compare that with Harris. Some retreat to a comfort zone, while others transcend, and stay in the arena to fight the battle. Ashe was like that. Harris is like that. On this day that we celebrate Martin Luther King, we know he was the epitome of that fight. I’m sure Harris knows, just as Obama knew, that anything can happen – but stay and fight. That’s what we have to do.

“That my dad delivered the incoming Vice-President is such a part of our family legacy. We’ve had lots of firsts. It’s a matter of fulfilling our dreams in spite of the impediments. My dad created opportunities we’d never have imagined. And actually tennis epitomizes that the most. To beat the odds you have to battle through so many things: your opponent, your physical condition, your mental state. I played in high school and I still compete nationally. [Driver was recently No. 1 in singles and doubles in the NorCal 50s.] Tennis is a beautiful analogy for life. You never give up ‘til that last match point. Anything can happen. You can play awful and be down, but if you can hang in there and win a couple of points you can change the course of that match.

“My parents, Kamala and her mom made it clear: ‘Hey, as long as you stay in the fight, you stay in the arena, you never know what’s going to happen.’

“What I like about tennis is that it’s such an honorable game. You make your line calls. You have to trust yourself to do the right thing and honor the game, the rules and your opponent. I’ve played this sport coming up on 50 years. I get to feel its awe.”

Brad, who scored junior wins over Greg Holmes and Matt Anger, recalled his early days. “We learned down in San Pablo Park in Berkeley with its four courts, with the adults. That’s what we loved, that community. There really is a special feeling there. I went back not too long ago and there were the same four courts. On weekend mornings, it was like a religious service. People would be leaning against their cars and watching everyone play. My sister and I were the top black juniors, so all the men would love challenging us and watching us grow up and succeed. They took as much pride in it as my parents did.

“I also played in Piedmont, and was part of a golden era with the likes of Brad and Dana Gilbert, John Saviano, Rich Carlson and Linda Siegel. It was an incredible group,” he sighed. “We knew there was a lot of other stuff behind the curtain, but we were the only black family playing. We all went out and battled. It was nothing like junior tennis these days, it was like a fraternity. There was a lot of mutual respect.

“My dad always told me and my sister, Wendy Driver Quinn (who was NorCal’s No. 1 junior and played for UC Berkeley), ‘Be prepared. Don’t ever let someone take advantage of you. They are going to try to take you down. You know who you are, where you come from, and you can overcome all of those challenges. Keep your eye on the prize.

“That points to Kamala’s journey. She’s shown bravery, courage and belief in herself. That’s what Shyamala taught her, and it’s like Ashe and my dad. He could have fled the hospital administrators who were trying to do everything to put up roadblocks and prevent him from excelling.

“As for Kamala, she knew the arc of her journey and the battles and landmines that were coming. Even more so, because as a black woman she endured the narrative, ‘Oh, she’s just a hard ass.’ But Kamala maintained her spirit and personality, even though people jumped at the perception that she was a cold-hearted woman. Both political parties viewed her as a threat.

“Now we’re beginning to look at her differently. She’s the same incredible, intelligent, driven (for the right reasons) person, with her intellect and unique skill sets. As a black person raised in the Bay Area, I’m incredibly proud. Now I’m down in Silicon Valley in the tech industry, and I see that the East Bay is very special.

“Sure, plenty of times growing up I was pulled over for no reason. But generally, there was so much acceptance there and the Berkeley Tennis Club was so representative of that. There were so many good people and you couldn’t tell if people had a million dollars or five dollars to their name. They didn’t drive Porsches – they were just normal. So when I look at Kamala I know she’s an extraordinary citizen from an ordinary background – and that will resonate with many.

“After what we saw at the capitol with the Confederate flag in our House and that dude wearing a Camp Auschwitz shirt, we saw what we are. But, you know what? We just can’t live in that narrative. Regardless of what side we’re on, we all have an individual and collective responsibility for a reckoning – to decide who we are, what we want to be and how we can achieve that.

“We are living in this false fantasy of self-deception and a comfortable vanity that led us to think we knew what America was. But for many of us, it’s actually not. We have to reconcile that. We have hit rock bottom and now we’ve got to look up and say, ‘Okay how do we dig ourselves out of this?’”

IT noted that Ashe often said black culture would lead America in its renewal. Driver noted, “Black culture has added so much richness to our culture – you think about southern food, entertainment, athletics, or you can go back to gospel music, that led to R&B. That’s the beauty in this promised land. Going back to slavery, this country has viewed black culture as a threat. But we were raised with the phrase ‘Black is Beautiful,’ and to feel that for ourselves, since we were taught that we weren’t beautiful and weren’t worthy. Words carried more weight than people thought. Most thought ‘Black is Beautiful’ was just about our skin, but it meant more to us. It was about our mind, our mental capacity, our intellect – everything. Those are what we had to hold on to.

“I continue to hope that we can inspire everyone regardless of race, color and gender. That we can aspire to black is beautiful, brown is beautiful, lesbian/gay is beautiful. That’s my optimism, because I grew up in a household that lived by that, and that’s what I taught my kids, who are now 25 and 23.

“As a parent of black children it was my daily exercise to make sure they understood they were beautiful, valuable and smart, and they’d earned all the successes they achieved. They worked their butts off to achieve them, and are still achieving them. My grandfather and parents always said, ‘Do not make peace with mediocrity.’”

Shyamalya Harris, Dr. Maynard Driver, Brad Driver and our incoming Vice-President believe that too.

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