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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE

No Setbacks Will Ace Out Dreams of Doubles Team

October 18, 1998|DIANE PUCIN

This didn't start as a dream. No, when Brenda Gray gave her 3-year-old daughter, Gianni North, a tennis racket it was in the hopes that the chubby toddler would work off some baby fat and maybe spend time on tennis courts, away from the troubles that Gray saw so many other African-American children find their way to in Kansas City.

On Oct. 28, North, a senior at Westchester High, will receive an academic jacket in a ceremony to honor students with grade-point averages of 3.5 and above. The jacket will be more important to Gianni, who is the No. 1 singles player on the Westchester tennis team, than any athletic honors she might receive.

In the way that we hope athletics and academics can enhance each other, Gianni has pursued her sport and her schooling relentlessly. The athletic dream has held hands with the academic dream in her heart. Yet her pursuit of tennis, her need to find coaching, the cost of rackets and strings, shoes and tennis balls, the need to fight sometimes in a sport that hasn't always welcomed minority competitors, has led Gianni and her mother on an emotionally and financially draining odyssey, which has led both of them to wonder about the worth of sport but in the end always leaves them celebrating sport.

"Sometimes I've gotten discouraged," Gianni says on a cool afternoon at Centinela Park, just after a taxing workout with her newest tennis coach, 71-year-old Earthna Jacquet. "But somehow things always work out."

There was amazing calm in Gianni's voice, considering that she and her mother needed $3,000 in less than 24 hours or they would be evicted from their Culver City apartment.

Gianni and her mother know about evictions. They spent nearly eight months last year sleeping on friends' floors and for a time in a shelter.

Gray, the ex-wife of former NFL star Mel Gray and whose older daughter, Melanna, was a talented track athlete as was her father, Mel, said that Gianni's father, a man Brenda never married, has never been interested in Gianni.

Brenda Gray--who has a master's degree, was a highly respected educator in the Kansas City school system and who had been an innovator in the building of an experimental high school in Kansas City--packed up Gianni and moved to Southern California when Gianni began to blossom as a tennis player about seven years ago. Gray believed her daughter was unable to find good coaching in Kansas City, and Gianni said she was the target of racial slurs and was being ignored on the tennis courts and in the prep schools her mother sent her to.

"We came to Los Angeles with $3,500 to our name," Brenda said. "But my daughter's dream came first."

Brenda and Gianni came here because of the climate and because Melanna was a senior at USC.

But Brenda couldn't teach in the Los Angeles area without passing the state certification tests. What with her devotion to taking Gianni to tennis lessons and constantly searching for people who would help Gianni with coaching and mentoring, Gray said she never had time to bone up on her math, her downfall in test-taking.

By last fall Gray was without a job, the mother and daughter were without a home. Still, Gianni made it to school every day, studied every night, even if it was while sitting on the floor where she slept. And Gianni still practiced her tennis every day, her mother sometimes driving her to a tennis court in a 1987 Nissan in which the trunk would be crammed with all of Brenda and Gianni's belongings.

"It was amazing to me that my daughter never gave up last year," Brenda says. "Her will never bent."

Things have improved. Gray is teaching at West Angeles Christian Academy, a private school where the state certification is unnecessary. With the help of a private benefactor, Brenda and Gianni had gotten an apartment. But Gray's job didn't start until Aug. 23 and while Gray is now able to keep up with the rent, she was unable to make a dent in some owed back rent.

So Gray had to pay $3,000 by Friday. Somehow Gianni's grandparents back in Kansas City scraped up the money and wired it.

As Gianni sat on a bench in the park Thursday, she closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and said, "My mother has given up so much for me and my tennis and I owe her so much. I can hardly wait for the next eight months to be over. Then I'll be in college and my mom will have her life back."

At 5 feet 1, Gianni would be the smallest player on the pro tennis circuit. If she still hangs on to a bit of hope that she could make a living at this game, she is also realistic. She is aiming for a college scholarship, and whether it is athletic or academic makes no difference.

While Gianni is talking, she mentions Arthur Ashe. She loved Ashe's book, "Days of Grace." As she speaks, something becomes clear. Gianni North is a person Ashe would have loved and admired. A minority child who embraced the game he loved, yes, but who, even more, has embraced the pursuit of scholarship as well. Some day Gianni would like to write as well as Ashe, she said. Not play tennis like Ashe, write like Ashe.

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