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Cotey: Magnitude of the moment resonates

Gibbs senior Akilah James, right, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, is all smiles after winning the Class 3A No. 1 singles title.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Gibbs senior Akilah James, right, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, is all smiles after winning the Class 3A No. 1 singles title.

ALTAMONTE SPRINGS — Bonita Holmes, the tennis coach at Gibbs, understands that the barriers were broken a long time ago. She knows Venus and Serena Williams are old news.

But two black players squaring off for the No. 1 title at the Class 3A state tournament?

"Still special," Holmes said. "Still special."

Akilah James, the senior from Gibbs, and Sarah Means, the sophomore from Wiregrass Ranch, put on a show Thursday morning, a production that lasted three hours, 11 minutes and drew the biggest crowd of the tournament. Folks were drawn in by the big hitting and sensational rallies and wanted to know who those girls were. Where exactly was Gibbs? What city was Wiregrass Ranch in?

James won 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 6-1, the bigger, stronger player finally wearing down the smaller but scrappy Means, whose power and heart belie her size, both putting their schools on the tennis map for at least one afternoon.

Wednesday, Holmes walked by Wiregrass Ranch coach Jewel Fye and high-fived her.

"Who would have thought it would be us,'' said Holmes, smiling widely, her team clearly the most unlikely of this year's participants, let alone James making the final.

For Fye, who played junior tennis in Atlanta, an all-African American final is nothing new.

But still, in her first year at Wiregrass Ranch, she has seen just a handful of black players. That two made the No. 1 state final was great, she said.

"I was excited to see that,'' said Fye, whose daughter Jordanyne also plays for the Bulls. "Both are good tennis players, and it was a good tennis match for all three hours.''

Playing against other black players was also nothing new for James, a Brooklyn, N.Y. native, or the Washington D.C.-bred Means.

Still, for those (like Holmes) from Tampa Bay, who put together the teams, who coach, those mentor, Thursday's final was exceptional.

• • •

Hillsborough coach Charles Roberts has been coaching tennis for more than 20 years, and he can remember having one black player in that time.

He thought that might change after the Williams sisters quickly rose from the hard courts of Southern California, when various tennis organizations dumped money into the inner city in an attempt to find other hidden gems. "It never lasted long enough to yield any fruit," he said.

Roberts was watching his boys' final doubles match of the tournament, but confessed to missing a lot of it because James and Means were playing their match on the adjacent court.

• • •

Bonita Lamar was there for the team competition Wednesday. Her daughter, Ebony, plays No. 3 singles for Gibbs and lost, but she was rooting for James on Thursday while at her job with Pinellas County Utilities.

Lamar was the first black player at Northeast, and it wasn't until a new coach came in her senior year in 1978 that she feels she was given an honest chance to make the team. She played No. 5 that year, beat the Vikings' No. 1 in a match once and later tried to walk on at the University of Florida.

When that failed, she became a chemist.

"I think it's a pretty big deal, and I am so proud of (James and Means)," Lamar said. "You almost need a stay-at-home mom and a husband who works to make it work. It's so expensive, and takes up so much of your time. In today's society, the way people are, you don't see many willing to devote themselves to anything for that long.''

Lamar said she has loved the game since she was young. She still remembers going across the street to Campbell Park, and a coach there who saw some promise giving her an old Davis Cup wooden racket that she treasured forever. "I thought I had a million bucks," she said.

Ebony's tennis days are over. She never took to the sport like mom, who says that's fine.

She'll try again when the grandchildren come along.

• • •

Attis Oliver, who played for Gibbs back in the day and is James' legal guardian (her family still lives in Brooklyn), says Thursday's final was a beautiful thing.

He trains players at Campbell and Lake Vista parks. Wherever he can, really. It's not easy finding students, but when he does, he is a devoted teacher.

He was proud of the way both players performed. It was a battle of baseline forehands, each player's grunting and squeaking growing to a crescendo on every point.

When it was over, the loudest ovation of the tournament.

Oliver thinks there are a lot more Jameses and Meanses out there, though neither can really be considered a Florida product.

Holmes, the Gibbs coach, sure hopes Oliver is right. She barely scraped together a team this season, and in a month all her players will graduate.

"Maybe this will help," she said.

But Holmes couldn't help but wonder if she would even be able to field a team next year.

This wasn't a movement.

It was just a moment, to be enjoyed for what it was.

Special.

Cotey: Magnitude of the moment resonates 04/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 11:51pm]
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