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“The Winner Always Has a Program”

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


Baseless prejudice sooner or later meets its match when it runs into raw talent and indomitable willpower. Jackie Robinson proved it in baseball, as did Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens in track.

In the world of tennis, the biggest winner of note was a black woman named Althea Gibson. Life’s victories don’t always go to the stronger or faster woman, to paraphrase an old adage, but Gibson demonstrated that sooner or later, the woman who wins is the one who thinks she can.

Gibson was three years old in 1930 when her family moved from a sharecropper’s shack on a cotton farm in South Carolina to New York City’s Harlem in search of a better life. At her elementary public school (with the uninspiring moniker, “PS 136”), playing hooky was her first love. “School was too confining and boring to be worthy of more than cameo appearances,” according to her biographers Francis Clayton Gray and Yanick Rice Lamb in Born to Win.

The Beaumont Country Club in Texas let her play its course but refused to permit her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms.

When she wasn’t fidgeting in the classroom, Gibson was exploring the Big Apple — riding the subway, shooting hoops, sneaking into movie theaters, and beating the pants off anybody who dared to play her at ping-pong. At the age of 12 in 1939, she was New York City’s female table tennis champion, and tennis on the big courts beckoned. Her Harlem neighbors went door to door, raisin…

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