NJTL 50 for 50:
Craig Ellenport | July 10, 2019
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 Mike Skinner, executive director at Youth Tennis Advantage in San Francisco. Skinner, who got involved with NJTL after meeting Arthur Ashe in 1974, is a 2019 inductee into the USTA Northern California Hall of Fame.
The Mike Skinner File
Name: Mike Skinner
NJTL Chapter: Youth Tennis Advantage (San Francisco Bay Area)
Role with NJTL: Executive director
Year became active in NJTL: 1975
How did you first get involved with NJTL?
Mike Skinner: I met Arthur Ashe about 45 years ago. ADVERTISEMENT He was playing in a tournament that I was watching in Palm Springs, Calif., and I got to talk to him. We shared a lot of the same kind of excitement for the program that he had just created a few years before. He asked me to consider starting a program in San Francisco and Oakland. He had his executive director of NJTL contact me. We met, and I think soon after that, a friend of mine, Lloyd Scott, organized a board of directors for us, which included Barry MacKay, who was a dear friend of Arthur’s, Charlie Hoeveler and several other people. And that’s how we started. It was wonderful.
What has kept you involved with NJTL?
Mike Skinner: It’s simple for me. I think we’ve had great results with this amazing thing that Arthur and others have created with tennis, academics and life skills. The way that we do it, which is free, year-round, team-oriented tennis and academics and life skills, is powerful. It’s a great tool for at-risk kids. We’ve had great results, and that’s such a huge driver. It’s a responsibility and a pleasure. The other part of what keeps me involved is that we have great people, starting with Arthur. So many people have contributed, have made NJTL San Francisco, now Youth Tennis Advantage (YTA), what it is. It’s precious.
There’s an element of this that’s very important. Any organization that runs for any amount of time gets tested, sometimes severely. We were severely tested in 2012. And every time that we’ve been tested, we made the simple recognition that if we let our organization die or get reduced significantly, no one would be stepping up like we do with the kind of programs that these kids deserve and need. And so we somehow get through it. And that’s the other part about being involved. We create a kind of band of brothers and sisters that keeps us going in good times and bad times. Luckily right now, we’re enjoying great times. The best we’ve ever had.
What do you enjoy most about it?
Mike Skinner: I identify so much with the kids. The pleasure is seeing these kids thrive and go on to college. It’s when they’re given some real chances to succeed, they do succeed, and are impressively succeeding. Early on in the '80s, I remember one young girl who came to us. She had just lost her parents. Her parents were shot in front of her and her brother at their home in a tough part of Oakland that we were serving. Her grandmother took her over to our program every day. She stayed with us for seven years, and she earned a tennis scholarship to college. It was an amazing transformation. So things like that showed me early on that YTA, NJTL is just this amazing tool—and a responsibility because of it. And it works. What do I enjoy most? Seeing those kids succeed.
How has NJTL affected your life?
Mike Skinner: It’s enriched my life profoundly. It’s been a blessing, a great vehicle to focus on and see succeed. And we’re succeeding really well now.
What do you remember about Arthur Ashe?
Mike Skinner: That he made life so much better. He made it better on the tour. He made it better from all of his extra work. That broadness, that vision that he had. He created so many rich, living legacies, like NJTL. And I think in the process he made us all better. He affected so many of us. Arthur came out here fairly often, and he somehow managed to follow what we were doing. And he helped us. When he played a first-round match here, he’d traditionally have one of our kids hit against him. What a treat that was. He also came out other times. And I think the second-to-last time was 1986. We had four courts that had just been built by the then-mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, right at the top of Hunter’s Point, which was one of the toughest neighborhoods in the Bay Area. It was always a focus of ours. We had these precious four courts, and he came out to dedicate the courts, and he ran clinics there. Then we went to the East Bay and had a clinic at one of the Oakland sites.
To give you an idea of Arthur Ashe’s legacy, many of us at YTA still consider him a driving force with everything we do because he’s such an example of how you can make things better. Pretty special thing.
How has YTA grown through the years, and why is it so important?
Mike Skinner: Because it works so well, that’s why it’s so important. I am grateful for YTA. NJTL was adopted by the USTA, and it honored its original mission, which is an easy thing to lose in the translation. But the USTA was amazing. They served underserved kids. They have that wonderful focus of tennis, academics, life skills. And the USTA Foundation has become more and more effective.
I mentioned the one girl. I forgot to mention one of our boys, who is more current. He’s a junior now. He’s from a very low-income family, English as a second language. He was in our program for I think eight years, in one of our San Francisco programs. He is now a junior at Princeton. We had two of our kids go to Ivy League schools that year—one at Harvard, one at Princeton. This year he is taking his junior year at Oxford. How can you do that but through great vehicles like NJTL?
Those two kids are great bookend examples of what can happen. That’s why I’m very grateful to NJTL and very excited about the future NJTL is creating because of that.