October 25th, 2017

Bobby Curtis 90th Birthday at Moore Park; Miami Issues Proclamation; Clubhouse Naming

General News

Photo Credit Art Seitz c2017

The famed Moore Park in Miami hosted a 90th birthday celebration for Bobby Curtis on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, as the City of Miami unveiled a proclamation hailing Curtis, and the park unveiled a plan to rename the clubhouse to honor its former park director.

Curtis, who organized a Florida Junior Team Tennis program that was eventually adopted nation-wide by the United States Tennis Association, got his start teaching tennis at Moore Park in the 1950s after relocating to Florida in 1947.

Serving a diverse and economically-challenged neighborhood in Miami, Curtis turned the Moore Park tennis center, now the Ashe-Buchholz Tennis Center at Moore Park, into a safe haven for children of all backgrounds, despite their means.

“I’ve seen Bobby take money out of his pocket, that he didn’t really have to give, for a child to have gas money to get back home from a tournament,” USTA Florida Executive Director Doug Booth told the crowd made up of former Curtis tennis students, past and present USTA Florida employees, Moore Park patrons and long-time friends. “And you’ll never hear that story, because Bobby would rather let someone else have it than him have it.”

One of those was Kim Sands, a 14-year-old basketball player at Moore Park when Curtis, the park director, and legendary instructor Saki Balafas, the former Greek Olympian who died two years ago at age 91, approached Sands in the early 1970s with a puzzling offer.

“I came to play basketball and they saw me playing, and Bobby and two others came over to me and said, ‘We can see you’re very athletic, what if we taught you how to play tennis?'” Sands said. “They said this guy will pay for your court time, and this guy will pay for your lessons, and this guy will take you to all the tournaments. And I rolled my eyes, like, ‘What!?’ This was before Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs, and all that came about. I thought maybe I could get a college scholarship, because white girls got tennis scholarships, but back then there weren’t many avenues for others.”

Kim Sands presents the City of Miami’s Proclamation to Bobby Curtis (Photo: Art Seitz c2017)

Sands became the first African-American women to receive a tennis scholarship from the University of Miami, and went on to reach a career-high ranking of No. 44 on the WTA Tour, in 1978 reaching the round of 16 at the Australian Open.

“Bobby was the first face that I saw every single day when I came after school, until I went to college,” she said. “If I didn’t have food, and he had food, I would eat peanut butter and jelly, or whatever he had, or he would give me money for across the street for Burger King. Then it was on and poppin’ — the practice and the drillin’ and the yellin’ and the screamin’ and the cryin’ and the quitting, and the not-quitting, and the sun — it was so hot! And him having a sense of humor about it all. Bobby had that sense of humor and wit, and heart. The combination of the heart, the love, the discipline, everything a child should be around. If you want to be in a safe space, you want to be around that type of virtue.”

After 10 years on the WTA tour Sands returned to teach tennis at Moore Park and still teaches tennis and works with kids today.

“I was one of the first black kids that came around, I was the oldest, then more black kids started seeing me,” she said. “Then later these kids say I taught them to play, because I was 16 or 17, and they were eight or nine, so I had a little knowledge about the game and I helped out. It’s been an interesting thing, because three people have come up to me here and said, ‘You were my first teacher.’

Bobby Curtis and a group of his former junior tennis pupils (Photo Credit Art Seitz c2017)

“The other kids felt that thing about Bobby too — that beautiful love, that he was providing a safe haven, the discipline. At first he didn’t even know us and we got the discipline. When people give you that discipline, you kind of know that they care about you. They’re caring about you and putting you in your place and saying, ‘Go practice.’ That’s his personality.”

Curtis first came to Moore Park approximately 20 years after its inception. Moore Park was instituted in 1927 when T.V. “The Pineapple King” Moore donated the land to the City of Miami. Six years later the park hosted the college football bowl game that would eventually become the famed Orange Bowl. Over the years the Moore Park tennis courts received a number of famous names such as Arthur Ashe and a number of future world No. 1 players.

“Bobby has always been the epitome of Moore Park in terms of a pied piper who made people want to be here,” said the Pineapple King’s grandson Gerald Moore, a long-time supporter of Moore Park tennis and the First Serve Miami Foundation, which provides life skills, tennis and academic support for under-served children in Miami. “Anything that could honor Bobby and give a legacy to all he’s done is something very important for all of us in South Florida.”

Photo Credit Art Seitz c2017

Curtis remains a board member to this day for First Serve Miami.

“With all the kids that come through Moore Park, we wanted to make sure his name was out there,” said First Serve Miami Chairman of the Board James Champion, who is overseeing the renaming of the Moore Park clubhouse to the Bobby Curtis Kids’ Clubhouse. “Mr. Moore believes this is the right thing to do for the kids — especially those kids that are under-served.”

The City of Miami’s Proclamation plaque, presented to Curtis by his former student Sands, notes, “Mr. Curtis was instrumental in creating a free program that introduced thousands of inner-city youth to the game of tennis…He developed a reputable, respected and successful tennis program, so much so that many of his students developed professional careers, such as Jim Courier, Andy Roddick, Mary Joe Fernandez, and Kim Sands…Mr. Curtis not only introduced the game of tennis to thousands of children, but has served also as inspiring role model for many youngsters by advancing a viable and uplifting alternative to a life of crime or otherwise anti-social behavior…We pay highest tribute to Robert ‘Bobby’ Curtis’ invaluable contributions to the youth of our community.”

At 90 years of age, Curtis still serves Miami tennis and is not ready to concede, noting that both his parents lived well into their 90s.

“It’s a great honor,” he said of the renaming of the Moore Park tennis clubhouse. “I didn’t think I’d make it to 90. And I’m glad it’s happening at Moore Park. I’ve spent so many years here, and having all those kids that grew up here being here today — it’s special.”

To donate toward the renaming and refurbishing of the Moore Park clubhouse to become the Bobby Curtis Kids’ Clubhouse, please go to www.ustafloridafoundation.com/donate-support and click on “Secure Online Donation Form” and add your information and then add “In honor of Bobby Curtis’s 90th Birthday” under “I want my donation to be dedicated.”