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Oscar Johnson Makes It to Hall of Fame : Black Tennis Champion Had to Break a Few Barriers Along the Way

August 27, 1987|ALAN DROOZ | Times Staff Writer

You can't blame Oscar Johnson for crowing a little these days. As he says, "It's been a good year."

Johnson, who was honored last month by the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R. I., carefully unwraps the glass-enclosed medallion he received, proudly displays it, then re-wraps it.

Until recently it seemed as if the Inglewood resident had put more into tennis than it gave back, but Johnson finally appears to be gaining grace in the tennis circles that forgot him 30 years ago.

It's still easy for Johnson to recall how, shortly after World War II, he and friends took up tennis as a lark at Jefferson High School, which had no team and no coach. "At that time I thought it was a little sissy sport," Johnson admitted.

But he became intrigued by the challenge and figured that he might improve by watching the best player on the other team. "I said to myself, 'I'm gonna master this game. I'm gonna be a champion.' I'd watch the good players and go home and practice in front of the mirror, trying to copy them."

Johnson learned fast, and by the time he graduated from Jefferson in 1948 he was Southern League singles champion and was hatching an ambitious plan: to enter the Long Beach Junior Open.

He applied. He was accepted. A wall was shattered. And playing in his first tournament sanctioned by the U. S. Lawn Tennis Assn., Johnson won. It was a ground-breaking victory.

Johnson is black. In those days, tennis whites was an all-encompassing term. It was as surprising that his application was accepted as it was that he won. A black player had never won a USLTA tournament. It was the Fourth of July, 1948.

Johnson then applied to a national junior tournament. He was accepted. Again, he won. It was another first for a black player in USLTA annals.

Johnson's showing was impressive enough for promoters from St. Louis to contact him about playing on the national circuit, where he would be shattering racial barriers at every stop. In the sedate world of tennis, Johnson didn't suffer the indignities--or the media coverage--of Jackie Robinson, but he was aware of his trailblazer status.

"I was under a lot of pressure, being the first black out there," he said. "I think I handled it pretty well. I was the pioneer, like Robinson. I wasn't the first black player but I was the first to play on the USLTA circuit. Althea (Gibson) came along about 1950. (Arthur) Ashe wasn't until the '60s."

Johnson's career was moving right along when the Korean War started and he was drafted. No tennis for two years. He came back strong in 1953, becoming the first black in the National Hardcourt Championships, reaching the quarterfinals, and the U. S. Open at Forest Hills, where he reached the second round.

In 1954, promoter Jack Kramer offered him a contract to turn professional. Just before he signed, he snapped a tendon in his elbow and missed more than a year. His game was never quite the same. By the time he came back in 1956 he was married, had a job and found the game took too much time from his family. He put his racket away in 1958 and didn't touch it for 17 years. In the meantime, Ashe surfaced as the first black man to gain recognition--and riches--on the pro circuit.

"I was too far ahead of my time," Johnson said. "There was no money for the pros. There was no money on the circuit."

In the mid-1970s, Johnson dusted off his racket and won the senior division of the Pacific Coast Championships in 1976. He repeated in 1978. And he found he missed tennis. So he began giving lessons and set up the Oscar Johnson Tennis Classic, which has been held for 10 years at USC with sponsorship from Anheuser-Busch Inc.

Johnson has since established the Oscar Johnson Youth Tennis Foundation, which subsidizes inner-city youths with promising careers. Johnson said he has sent several players to the pros--including the brother-sister team of Jerome and Cheryl Johnson--and has gotten college scholarships for another half-dozen.

Working out of Centinela Park in Inglewood, Johnson's dream now is to get sponsorship and funding to run youth programs and give free lessons all year.

And while Johnson rediscovered tennis, tennis also rediscovered him. Johnson was nominated for Hall of Fame consideration in 1983. Last month at age 56 he joined Billie Jean King, Stan Smith and Dennis Ralston at induction ceremonies where he received a special award "for outstanding services to the game."

He said nearly everyone there was surprised to learn who he was. "I hadn't met these people, but the camaraderie was like we'd known each other," he said. "The whole Hall of Fame committee (was) just great, and I was having such a good time I didn't want to leave."

Maybe Johnson has finally caught up with his time, or vice versa. He finds it rewarding working with young players and seeing a handful get something out of it. He feels like he's leaving something worthwhile in his wake.

"I've had my ups and downs, but it's been a very rewarding experience and now people are starting to recognize me. All in all, I've enjoyed my experience."

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