NJTL 50 for 50: Lenny Simpson
As the USTA Foundation celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the National Junior Tennis & Learning network, USTA.com looks at 50 NJTL leaders and alumni who helped shape this incredible community dedicated to helping youth strive for academic and athletic excellence on the tennis court, in the classroom and in life.
In this installment, we catch up with Lenny Simpson, who has been involved with the NJTL since its inception and is currently the Founder and Executive Director of One Love Tennis in Wilmington, N.C..
The Lenny Simpson File
Name: Lenny Simpson
NJTL Chapter: One Love Tennis
Role with NJTL: Founder and Executive Director of One Love Tennis
Year became active in NJTL: 1969
How did you first become involved with the NJTL?
Lenny Simpson: I actually became involved before the NJTL was the NJTL. My coach and mentor was Arthur Ashe, the founder of the original NJTL 50 years ago, along with Charlie Pasarell and Sheridan Snyder. Arthur told me about the NJTL before they even put it together and asked me for my thoughts on it.
The first NJTL really started in the ‘40s and ‘50s with Dr. Robert Johnson and Dr. Hubert Eaton, my next door neighbor. They started the first American Tennis Association (ATA) junior development team to find the best black athletes across the country and bring them to one location to be exposed to the game of tennis. Both Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe went to that camp. I went to that camp and didn’t become No. 1 in the world, but went on to have a great career.
Arthur knew that a program like this would work because he saw it work with himself and thousands of others. He thought to take this concept, get the USTA behind it and do a national program as an outreach to at-risk boys and girls that gave them the opportunity to play the great game of tennis.
What inspired you to start One Love Tennis?
Lenny Simpson: The reason why I came back home to Wilmington, N.C., is to continue the legacies of Dr. Johnson, Dr. Eaton, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe. They were all my coaches and mentors. I am the only living person that had a direct relationship with all four of those incredible people that made me who I am today.
My wife and I were living in Knoxville, Tenn. and owned a private membership racquet club. I came back home to be a celebrity guest at the Azalea Festival in Wilmington. I looked at the old court that I used to play on with Dr. Eaton and started thinking about the good times that I had. I said to my wife that it was time for me to come back home and make a difference for other boys and girls in the community by giving them the same opportunity to play tennis that I had. That was how One Love was founded in 2013.
You’ve had the chance to bring some of the kids from your program to the US Open. What was that experience been like for you and them?
Lenny Simpson: There are so many levels to this story. We got started with the McLemore family, who were benefactors of One Love and believed in our program right from the start. They suggested taking a couple of the kids to the US Open [in 2016] and offered to pay for all of the expenses. These kids have never been outside of Wilmington and now they’re flying over the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. They’re walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium for Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. It was absolutely tremendous.
The next year, we took four at-risk kids and four chaperones. [Former USTA President and CEO] Katrina Adams then suggested we bring even more kids the following year. The NJTL got behind us with tickets and opening up some doors to help make the experience even better for these kids. We had a fundraiser and took 30 kids and 10 chaperones the following year. With the help of many contributors, the NJTL and the USTA, we’re bringing 43 kids and chaperones to the US Open this year.
What were some of the doors that the NJTL opened for this trip?
Lenny Simpson: Last year, Katrina made it possible for eight of our kids and two coaches to watch Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day from the President’s Box. Twenty-four of our kids also participated in a tennis demonstration in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Our kids will be performing again this year in Arthur Ashe Stadium and participating in the unveiling of the Althea Gibson statue.
When we showed Althea Gibson’s documentary to some of the girls, they were upset that there was nothing to honor Althea. They wrote letters on how they felt about it and read them to Katrina when she was in Wilmington for a One Love fundraiser. She took the letters and had the USTA board members read them, which pushed up everything in terms of timing. Those girls and One Love will now forever be part of history.
Are there any other moments with One Love Tennis that stand out for you?
Lenny Simpson: The NJTL has been so involved with us and extremely helpful in the programs we’ve wanted to implement. We recently took 40 kids and chaperones to the last two Fed Cup ties in Asheville, N.C. The kids were escorting the players, carrying the flags and participating in the on-court demonstrations. It’s an incredible situation for a little NJTL chapter in Wilmington. You couldn’t write this script.