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Spartanburg Teen Wants to 'Play It Forward'

February 2, 2015 04:58 PM

Jonathon Braden
USTA South Carolina

SPARTANBURG, S.C. – It is his 16th birthday, the day teenagers receive their freedom. But instead of cruising around the Upstate with his friends, Spencer Brown, one of the top-ranked junior tennis players in the state, is driving to introduce the sport to kids in a disadvantaged neighborhood.


“Hey,” Brown says, greeting the 10 middle school students, along with their Boys & Girls Club of the Upstate supervisor. The group walks the 50 feet from their after-school program at Carver Middle School to the school’s three tennis courts, which show the trademarks of neglect: weeded cracks, faded paint, nets sloped like smiles.

But on court, the kids choose from a box of donated racquets that have fresh strings, new grips and the world’s finest tennis brands: Babolat; Wilson; Dunlop. Brown also has provided them two hoppers of tennis balls.

Months ago, Spencer Brown was just another highly-ranked junior tennis player focused on improving his own game. But now Brown, motivated by his family's volunteer efforts, is a gifted player who also volunteers to help kids less fortunate experience the sport.

It’s almost time for the students’ free tennis lesson, so Brown, who wears a Patagonia jacket and carries a Babolat racket, joins them on court and divides them into two groups. Standing at the net of the middle court with five kids, Brown begins his weekly attempt to “play it forward.”

Few 16-year-olds would be more qualified to teach tennis than Brown.

Four years ago, he was named the USTA South Carolina Junior Boy Player of the Year. He is now the No. 3-ranked singles player in the state in the boys 16 and under division. Brown, who has wavy blonde hair and a thin frame, plays tennis at least five times a week through private lessons, group clinics or matches. Three weekends a month, he plays in USTA tournaments all over the Southeast.

Brown started playing when he was 3. His parents were picking up his older brother from a tennis clinic and Spencer shuffled onto the court, grabbed a racquet and rallied a few balls with the tennis teaching pro.

He has set his racquet down for a day or two since then. “I definitely missed it when I did that so I picked it back up,” Brown said.

About six months ago, he mentioned wanting to volunteer to his parents.

Brown walks from court to court, helping the Carver Middle School students. (USTA SC photo)

For years, Spencer Brown had seen his mom and dad and older brother volunteer their time through community organizations. Years ago, he, too, had volunteered and helped at a tennis clinic at the Country Club of Spartanburg for kids from the Boys & Girls Club of the Upstate.

Maybe you should do something with tennis, Spencer’s parents, Steve and Sherri, suggested.

So Brown and his parents called Greg Tolbert, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of the Upstate. Spencer Brown told Tolbert he wanted to collect some donated racquets, restring and re-grip them and donate them to after-school programs so kids could play tennis.

That’s great, Tolbert told him, but a lot of our kids don’t know how to play tennis. What we really need, he said, is someone to spend an hour or two a week with them and teach them how to play.

In early October, Spencer Brown sent an email to all of his tennis contacts, asking them for racquets, tennis bags and balls. He mentioned plans to place a donation box at an upcoming tournament. He also encouraged everyone to think about donating an hour a week or month in their area to help kids learn how to play tennis.

“I have named this venture ‘PLAY it forward’, Brown wrote, “so that everyone can play going forward.”

That month, he taught tennis to 23 Carver Middle School students, many of whom played for the first time.

Today’s group is smaller, though, which means each child gets more time with Brown, who ambles from court to court offering tips.

Now he’s working with O’Shauna Ferguson and Temontai Dandy, both 13-year-old eighth graders.

O’Shauna and Temontai stand across from each other, just feet from the net. Brown tries to teach them to softly volley and keep the ball off the ground.

“Just barely touch it,” Brown says. “Don’t even move your racquet.”

Brown also works with the kids one-on-one, as is here with Temontai. (USTA SC photo)

Neither O’Shauna or Temontai played tennis before Brown started the program, although O’Shauna has long had tennis aspirations. “I’ve been wanting to be a tennis player since I was little,” she said.

Temontai, who plays football in the fall, has been surprised by tennis. He thought the sport would be boring. But he likes hitting the ball over the net, and he gets a little better each practice, “hitting it at different angles and heights,” he said.

Brown walks over to the other end of the three courts, and after awhile, he’s back in the middle, tapping the ball over the net to Elijah Bridges, a 12-year-old seventh grader, who, instead of only swinging his arm with his racquet, is moving his shoulders, arm and entire right side of his body.

“You’re going like this,” Brown tells him, showing Elijah his form.

“Swing with your arm,” Brown says, and then shows him how to lightly hit the ball – shoulders back, body still, only his arm moving the racquet.

Bridges had played tennis only on his phone before Brown started the program. (USTA SC photo)

Elijah had sort of played tennis before Brown started his program. “I used to play it on my phone,” he said. Now he plays the real thing, outside, with the sun shining and the sky clear.

On a typical day, the students would be inside, studying, practicing art or learning about life skills.

“I like that we get to be outside,” Elijah said, “and that we can enjoy each other and play tennis.”

His playing partner, August Brackett, a 13-year-old eighth grader, appreciates the hour as well.

She has been interested in tennis ever since she saw Venus and Serena playing on TV with her grandpa five years ago. “It’s like a new experience,” August said. “I get to experience something else.”

"It's like a new experience," August Brackett said. (USTA SC photo)

Brown finds practice fun and rewarding as well.

Last Thanksgiving dinner, Brown and about a dozen other family members, including his parents, stood around the dining room table, holding hands and waiting to say blessing. Per family tradition, they first had to share what made them thankful.

Spencer’s mother’s mother said she was thankful for family and good health. Spencer was next. He said he was thankful for the tennis program, for the kids who had come into his life. He started to cry, and said he was thankful for all the donated equipment that had come from all over, including from USTA Southern and Wofford College.

About a minute later, Spencer’s mother, aunt and grandfather all gave him a hug.

A part of Tolbert, the Boys & Girls Club leader, wants to credit Spencer Brown’s parents for convincing Spencer to lead the program. Tolbert is sure they encouraged Spencer and made sure he had a plan for the initial donation request and practices. But, Tolbert remembers, a lot of parents encourage their children to get involved.

“It’s up to the kid,” Tolbert said. “He’s the first young person to reach out and ask what we want.”

Brown has enjoyed the program just as much, if not more, than the middle schoolers, including Temontai Dandy. (USTA SC photo)

On the courts, the hour-long practice has ended. But Brown has been asked to come inside, so he follows the students and their supervisor, Kyla Williams, back into Carver Middle, where they hover over a circular table and scribble on a poster board.

Brown waits a few feet away, pretending not to watch. The circle breaks, and Williams turns to Brown. “This is for you,” she says, passing him a poster board with “Happy Birthday” written all over it. “Thanks for all that you do!”

The kids scream.

Brown admires his supersized card with colored balloons and the kids’ signatures. He thanks the kids.

Outside, walking back to his car, he thinks about practice – what could have been better, what could have been worse. And he's already thinking about when he’ll return.

“There wasn’t that many kids today – wasn’t happy about that,” he says. “That’s OK. There will be more.”

Brown wants more and more kids to participate. (USTA SC photo)



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