Pharrington Douglass’ Dream for Garber Courts: How It Came True
Years before Pharrington Douglass was President of the Urban Racquet Sports Foundation, he was a young boy from Michigan who grew up playing tennis. He learned about the game from his best friend’s mom. She played.
Today that woman is 96 years old and Pharrington still brings her flowers.
“She played tennis during the Althea Gibson era. We used to watch Arthur Ashe compete against Jimmy Connors, Borg and those players,” Pharrington recalls. “I started out as a beginner; took lessons at the city park, Garber Tennis Courts! Who would have thought that it would happen this way?”
Pharrington's referring to the full circle life has taken him, because he and his partners at Urban Racquet Sports Foundation have spent recent years working tirelessly, re-dedicating Garber Courts and bringing them new life for kids learning tennis today.
Eleven or twelve years old was when Pharrington picked up his first racquet and it was wintertime. He would go to Garber Courts with his best friend.
Socks on their hands for gloves, Kmart special tennis racquets, a broom to sweep the courts and white Wimbledon tennis balls. That’s all they needed.
“We’d just try to hit the ball around,” Pharrington says laughing. “That began our tennis journey.”
That spring, the boys took lessons five mornings a week with George Purdy and Tony Capellino. His best friend’s mom would drop them off every day with sack lunches, and the two would hit back and forth.
A few summers later, Pharrington’s friend stopped playing, but Pharrington kept it going. He played through high school and even college.
After high school, Pharrington moved from Michigan to Pittsburgh to attend community college before eventually transferring to Florida A&M University where he played on the men’s team.
Playing in college allowed Pharrington to compete a lot more in tournaments, but it also gave him a chance to teach others the sport. He coached the women’s team and in the summers, he traveled back to Pittsburgh and taught there. For a time, Pharrington also taught in the hills of Virginia, coaching eight hours every day.
His passion to continue growing the game then brought Pharrington back to Florida where for three years he ended up working at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. That's where he had the pleasure to work with several leading tennis players from around the world.
“Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Martin Blackman,” Pharrington rattles off the names. “Monica Seles was there at the time. I didn’t get to work with her, but she was number one in the world in the 12 and Under division.”
But Michigan eventually called back to Pharrington and he returned home, moving to Saginaw again and picking up coaching part-time at what is now the Saginaw Athletic Club. That’s where he met Ken LeCureux.
“He’s my partner at Urban Youth Tennis Foundation.” Having met Ken, the two became friends and traveled once with Ken’s church. They went to the Million Man March in Washington D.C. launched by a broad coalition of African American leaders.
“There were men from all over the world,” Pharrington shares. “Hearing the Gospel and being open to learn and listen… That was an eye-opening experience. To bring that back to Saginaw— to intertwine teaching inner-city kids about relationships, decision making, eating right, reading, competing— It all came together.”
Pharrington and Ken founded the Urban Youth Tennis Foundation almost 15 years ago but changed the name last year to incorporate pickleball (hence: racquet sports).
“The catalyst was... there were street gangs throughout the south side of Saginaw, and I wanted to do something to help make a difference for the youth,” says Pharrington.
In the beginning, they started offering after-school winter programming for kids, but when they applied for a grant to purchase equipment, they didn’t receive the funds. Instead, the local grant went to a senior living facility that needed the money for kitchen appliances. So Ken and Pharrington looked for other opportunities, searching for grant writers and different foundations to partner with.
Without a recreation department of its own, the City of Saginaw chose Pharrington and Ken to partner with. When the weather was nice, they moved outdoors and taught kids at Garber Tennis Courts where Pharrington grew up playing.
At the time, Pharrington says the courts’ conditions weren’t great. Six of the twelve were playable… The back six were rough.
After just a couple of years, Pharrington and Ken developed an important partnership with an outside group that helped them receive funds to tear out six of the courts and patch up the others. It was during this beautification process that Pharrington began seeing a bigger picture.
“We had this dream: We’re going to build the place. We’re going to build a facility for our program.”
Pharrington’s dream quickly began to grow. He wanted the complex to provide new offerings, host high school matches, curate scholarships and introduce adult programming.
Fifteen years after what was the Urban Youth Tennis Foundation first started playing on Garber Courts, that dream has now become a reality.
The project began with a 2.2 million dollar budget estimated by Urban Racquet Sports Foundation. That was to pay for championship-style courts for pickleball and tennis, new lighting and construction for a building with bathrooms, a classroom and a pro shop.
The work is done now, and all that’s left? Learning how to run the place.
Pharrington says the foundation will spend the next few months building relationships, fundraising and finding people to hire. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to take place in May.
"By the grace of God, in the middle of Covid, we were blessed to nearly finish our fundraising,” Pharrington shares as he refers to a special, anonymous donor who had agreed to match some of the dollars originally donated. “We’re still short about 200,000 dollars,” Pharrington adds. “People say the hardest part is crossing the finish line… We’ll always be looking for support.”
What matters most to Pharrington now is the impact Garber Courts has on others.
“Our goal is to really make a difference in the lives of the kids that we work with. Ultimately we would like for them to go on to higher education. It doesn’t necessarily have to be college. It could be a trade. It could be the family business… Whatever your ingenuity is, but doing something with all your might, using all the resources available.”
Pharrington paves the way for the next generation of tennis players, standing on the same courts he once did as a kid.
Today he grows tennis for others.
When he’s not doing that, he likes to travel he says. “I like to go to London. I like to go to and visit my daughter.”
Pharrington has two girls. One married and living in Germany with two Master’s Degrees. The other is in Baltimore working on her Ph.D. “They inspire each other,” he says. “I’m just grateful they’re doing well and that I am able to continue to sew into their lives because I love them."
Pharrington also enjoys singing in his church’s choir and sharing stories with his congregation.
“The preaching part is probably just something that comes out of me after spending time studying the Bible and scripture and meditating. Really just desiring to be a good example for the kids that we work with.” Pharrington mentions a long list of people who have supported him and the Urban Racquet Sports Foundation, including the city of Saginaw.
“My family, my workplace, my neighborhood. I’m just grateful because of so many things I have been through as a person. The grace that has been extended to me… Many people probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize the kinds of things [I’ve experienced]. But yet, the grace of God is sufficient. Because of that, I want to share goodness, I want to share the word and I just want to be an example as best I can.”