By Dana Czapnik, USTA.com
Jaycen Murphy is easy to find, and he has been for most of the past decade. Friends and family looking for him know to start in the same place every time – the sprawling Harlem Armory, a unique Manhattan treasure located on 143rd Street and Fifth Avenue, where Murphy has spent the last 11 years of his life learning the sport as part of the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program.
At HJTEP, which operates out of the Harlem Armory, Murphy is what’s known as a "lifer." He began with the program at age 7 and is now 18, on the verge of graduating high school and moving on to college, where he plans to play tennis at the Division I level.
Murphy is soft-spoken with a wide, bright smile. He has an obvious enthusiasm for the sport of tennis and lights up when talking about the program that raised him. "I’m the son of the program, really," he says. "They’re like my family now. I spend all my time here."
Murphy is one in a long line of success stories that have come out the Harlem NJTL program, a not-for-profit aimed at bringing tennis to high-risk, low-income, inner-city neighborhoods. The program has earned funding and support from some important figures in the African-American community, including former New York Knicks great Earl Monroe and Black Enterprise magazine, and counts among its former pupils James Blake, who learned tennis at HJTEP before playing at Harvard University and eventually rising to No. 4 in the world.
"For any kid who doesn’t grow up in a tennis atmosphere or in a tennis surrounding and is introduced to it as an example of a non-traditional sport for their ethnicity, which for African-Americans was basketball or track, it opens up a lot of doors that they would never have been privy to," says Dante Brown, a former student and now the program’s director.
Like Blake and Murphy, Brown grew up in HJTEP. He went on to graduate from Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville after earning a full ride to play tennis. A first-generation college graduate in his family, Brown credits HJTEP for not only giving him the leg up to attend college and earn an athletic scholarship, but also for planting the seed that attending college was even an option.
"At the age of 12, 13, 14, 15, I wasn’t thinking about college until my contemporaries – kids that I was in the program with – were talking about it because of their family background," Brown says.
Brown never forgot the lessons he learned. He jumped at the chance to return to HJTEP and give back to the community, providing kids just like him the opportunity to succeed and grow in the sport of tennis – and beyond. While educators and coaches at most schools only work with children for up to four years, Brown and his coaches can spend up to 11 years teaching, coaching and mentoring kids as part of HJTEP, as they have with Murphy.
"I wind up becoming surrogate father, surrogate mother, surrogate uncle, confidante, sponsor, therapist, mentor," Brown says. "I become all of that through their process of adolescence to teenagehood to adulthood and then some. It’s a great feeling."
Murphy echoes this sentiment. "I grew up really without my father in my life, so all the male coaches are like fathers to me," he says. "I talk to all my coaches about all the things going on in my life. They get on me when I’m not doing things right."
Since 1972, HJTEP has worked with more than 7,000 kids in the Harlem area, not only giving them access to excellent tennis coaches and instruction, but also providing extracurricular help with academics and SAT preparation.
"Our focus is, we develop kids [as tennis players]," Brown says, "but more than anything we’re character builders."
Katrina Adams, Executive Director at the Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program and First Vice President of the USTA, took over the program seven years ago and turned it around after it had fallen on some hard times. It has since become one of her biggest passions.
"I came from humble beginnings and from a similar program, though not as big," says Adams, a former Top 10 doubles player and Wimbledon doubles semifinalist. "I grew up in an NJTL program in Chicago, and it’s been my way of giving back and trying to pull someone along a similar path that I’ve taken, and if I have the power to do that, it gives me great satisfaction."
Murphy hopes to follow in Adams’ footsteps and turn pro after he graduates college. But for the time being, he is working on elevating his game to play competitively at the collegiate level. And like many of his friends in the program, when he isn’t practicing on his own game, or studying for school, he’s usually at the Harlem Armory, helping to coach the younger players.
"I’m a student of the program still, but on my off days, I’m here helping to coach the younger kids," he says. "I want to give back."