HBCU North Carolina Central first to launch as USTA Community Hub
As part of ongoing efforts to grow the sport of college tennis, coupled with an overarching mission to promote and develop the game at large, the USTA is undertaking an initiative and offering funding grants to help turn collegiate tennis facilities into community hubs.
The program aims to embed college tennis into the fabric of the game at a local level, while also establishing colleges as leaders in the space. In a win-win for schools and communities alike, opening campus courts for public use can help drive meaningful connections at many levels.
In addition to the financial benefits of a new revenue stream, college programs can engage new fans and supporters on a regular basis while also offering local tennis providers and players a top-class facility to host the game they love.
To date, 22 schools have received grants of up to $10,000, with the first five grants going to Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina Central, Presbyterian and Texas Rio Grand Valley. Of the early adopters, the first school to start programming is NC Central, an HBCU whose men’s program is led by coach D. Curtis Lawson.
“I've always looked for opportunities where there are resources, there are potential partnerships that I can connect with that will again allow our program to be able to continue to advance,” Lawson told USTA.com.
“There's a lot of enthusiasm and energy around just being able to play the sport and being able to have a quality venue as a home base for these different entities.”
Lawson has over 30 years of coaching experience and is a member of the USPTA and PTR. He’s also a life member of the American Tennis Association (ATA), the United States’ oldest African-American tennis organization.
As an NCCU graduate and product of the HBCU system, Lawson takes added pride in his work at the school.
“I take a great sense of pride and I take on a great sense of responsibility to ensure that North Carolina Central University in particular, and HBCUs more broadly, are framed in a positive light,” he explained, noting former players who have received scholarships to some of the top graduate and professional schools in the nation.
Lawson, who grew up in Cleveland, has spent his entire adult life in Durham after transferring to NCCU in the mid-1980s.
A two-sport athlete (basketball and tennis), Lawson graduated with a degree in biology and later earned a master's degree in bio-chemistry. In addition to his role at NCCU, Lawson has spent 30 years as a health care professional working with the federal government.
“We aspire to excellence in all things,” Lawson said of his tennis program. And he certainly leads by example.
NCCU hosted a tennis carnival in August as a grand opening of sorts to the public, engaging the Durham-Orange Community Tennis Association (DOCTA) and Empact Tennis as early partners for the use of their facilities.
Empact Tennis is a grassroots, community-based tennis program aimed at reaching underserved communities and providing afterschool programs access to the sport. The program operates under the banner of the Love to Serve Tennis Foundation.
Owner Warrick “Tuffy” Taylor, was a graduate assistant under Coach Lawson from 2002-09, and remains a part of the varsity program today.
After starting Empact Tennis by bringing nets and equipment out to various neighborhoods, Tuffy arranged for his programs to use the NCCU courts, prior to campus COVID-19 restrictions.
“We want to have that become a hub so that there is an opportunity to have this run through a HBCU and reach out through that community,” said Taylor, who explained that he had worked camps at North Carolina and Duke, but never at his alma mater.
“Our goal was to use NCCU as part of a fundraising initiative, a way to get more exposure, a way to partner with the adjoining communities that are struggling to find programming for their kids in those neighborhoods. So it’s going to serve a lot of purposes.”
Taylor hopes to get more than 80 kids playing on the NCCU courts as restrictions ease.
Prior to the NCCU’s involvement in the USTA’s community hub initiative, the school’s courts were largely used to support the varsity programs and, on occasion, for P.E. classes — a common setup at schools around the country.
While the idea of schools renting out their facilities is nothing new, Lawson and NCCU are making strides towards the USTA’s vision of collegiate tennis centers becoming central to the sport in the local community.
“The fact that we were able to secure the first grant as a part of this initiative across all universities, I think it's pretty cool,” Lawson said.
“The concept, there's nothing novel about it, but the fact that the USTA has put some resources and some promotions around for those schools, generally mid-majors and smaller schools, this is an opportunity where you can really get more bang for your buck.”
“I like being a pioneer. I like being kind of cutting edge,” he continued. “And so the hub initiative, knowing that we've got good partnerships within the community… the respect that we've been able to garner for what we're trying to do and represent has availed a lot of opportunities that otherwise may not have been offered up to us.”
That respect has also translated to NCAA competition. The Eagles have regularly competed against and hosted Top 25 opposition in recent years, with Wake Forest coming to Durham last season as a Top 10 team. According to Lawson, it was the first time an HBCU hosted a Top 10 team.
With Lawson at the helm, don’t count out NCCU from rising into the Top 10 themselves in the future.
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