NJTL 50 for 50:
Erin Maher | April 18, 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 shaped 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 NYJTL founder Skip Hartman, who was a linchpin in securing public courts across the city of New York in order to further develop and expand the NJTL program.
The Skip Hartman File
Name: Skip Hartman
NJTL Chapter: NYJTL, New York City
Role with NJTL: Founder
Year became active in NJTL: 1971
In 1969, you persuaded the New York City Parks Department to transform public park tennis courts into usable facilities in the winter. Can you tell me what the motivation was to do that?
Skip Hartman: Well, it was to get rich. ADVERTISEMENT It sounded like a good business, and I thought I’d make a lot of money. The reality of it was, from 1961 to 1969, we had an economic boom in the country, and the stock market just soared. It was the sort of thing where, if in 1965 you threw a dart into the stocks and whatever stock it hit you invested in it, in 1968 it would have doubled. Everything had just soared, and as a result of that, there was a lot of easy money around because people were making so much money. You could start up a business in 1965, ‘66, ‘67 and ‘68 and pretty easily find capital for it—risk capital. Around 1968, I had this idea to use the bubble over tennis courts in parks in the city. I thought it was a good idea and it would be easy to raise money and go public.
By the time I got the first license from the city, it was late ’69, and by the time we were ready to put a shovel in the ground, the stock market had leveled off and started to go down. Of course, there was a recession—a big recession—in 1974, and the city almost went bankrupt. The boom period started to level out in 1969 and 1970, so when I was ready to go, there was no money around for an idea. For a growing business with a three-year track record, maybe you could get money, but I had to scramble. I had one partner and some friends, and we raised some money and got this idea off the ground. We didn’t have enough money to hire people, so I had to make a decision whether to practice law, which is what I was doing at the time, or give that up and go run this incipient adventure, which is what I ended up doing.
My wife at the time was making about $14,000 a year as a school teacher, and I was making about $30,000 as an associate at a law firm. Our first year running this company, which I was the chief executive officer of as well as the janitor, our combined income was $18,000. Our Saturday evenings were spent going to Friendly’s in Westchester and taking in a movie. It was a lot of sweat equity and sacrifice financially at the beginning, but our timing was good. Tennis really started to boom between 1970 and 1977—a huge boom. We were able to benefit from that as a business, and we went from one club to about four clubs and developed it over the years. As it turns out, it has been a very wonderful business to be in the indoor tennis and tennis programming business. It is not the best business in the world; you’re never going to make millions or billions of dollars, like Amazon or Facebook or whatever other business over the years have had growth. It is not a rapid-growth business, where you can make a lot of money, but you do well. That is the background and the concept.
How did you first get involved with NJTL?
Skip Hartman: I had heard about this program that involved teams, mixed age groups, co-ed and simplified scoring. They had a minimum requirement that you had to offer the program at least three hours a day, three days a week, and it had to be free or nominally priced for at least six weeks. This was a real program. I thought this is really good, so we sponsored the program at my indoor club in the Bronx, my first club, and we continued to do it at every other club I opened. The way I got involved was Stuart Ludlum, a young lawyer working on behalf of the NJTL, who asked me to sponsor a program at one site. That is how I got involved, and that was in 1970, the first year I opened the indoor club. In the summertime, the bubbles came down after the winter season. The parks department would give the concessionaire the summer teaching rights at the local park. I was in Mullaly Park, which had 16 courts right near Yankee Stadium. We had two courts, which we were allowed to use all summer long for lessons. For this program, the parks department let us use four or five more courts if we needed them during the day during the summer.
In 1971, you co-founded the NYJTL with Arthur Ashe, who was a cofounder of the NJTL. How was working with Ashe?
Skip Hartman: I’ve promoted it [the NJTL], and I’ve gone along with it [the NJTL]—we all have—because Arthur [Ashe] was such a transcendental person and such a fine person and he loved the program. What people don’t understand is we use Arthur’s name almost as if it is a brand identity. To tell you the truth, when I would tell people for the many years I’ve been doing this, when I talk to someone about NJTL and try and explain what it is, all I have to do is say it was cofounded by Arthur Ashe, and right away they have a sense of what it is. You didn’t have to go too much further with detail. He is a tremendous way to simply communicate. I’m not talking about in 1970, not as much in ’72, ’73, but during his career, he was already fighting for civil rights and all of this. By the time we got into the 1980s and the '90s and after his death, he was a legend. He stood for so many good, wholesome things, so if you say this is a program started by Arthur Ashe, you didn’t have to tell anyone anything else to get them to listen and donate.
Arthur truly loved the program because he saw that in the many cities where it existed, it was a really successful grassroots outreach program. Over time, it evolved from being the original idea of "let’s get more black athletes to be great players" and became more of "let’s open tennis up to low-income kids and all of the opportunities that it represents." Then the education became my biggest contribution. To see the opportunity of the schools as opposed to the parks—or not as opposed to but in addition to the parks—and how the schools represented a much more powerful, strategic partner and message. It took tennis from being a recreational sport in the parks to being a lifetime sport that every kid in school ought to be exposed to. Kids who played tennis would normally think about going to college, and one of the goals of schools in low-income communities was to get kids to think seriously about going to college because low-income kids never dreamt of going to college. Tennis worked magically in the New York City public schools system.
Basically, Arthur, until he died, was always available. In New York, I got to know Arthur better in the last six years of his life. After he retired from playing, he lived in northern Westchester in the Bedford area. That was from like ’82 to ’86 or so. Then when he contracted AIDS, which of course we didn’t know it at the time, he moved back to the city, and he and [wife] Jeanne lived on 72nd Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue in a nice big building right near New York Hospital. That was the reason they moved back into the city because of the medical treatment he needed. In that period, from 1986 to his death in ‘93, he was more available to me, whether to meet and talk or come for clinics and appearances. He helped us in New York by doing all of that. He loved the idea of working in the schools and did clinics for us in quite a few public schools. He was always there, and there was never a fee or anything. He was always there, and so that is how I got to know him.
Photo (l to r): Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, former ATP star James Blake and Skip Hartman