It was the summer of 1962, and Dad faced a dilemma. A few years earlier, unable to speak a word of English, he had come to America from his native Iran. He headed west where the weather was conducive to playing tennis, a sport he loved. He settled in Las Vegas and got a job working in the restaurant of the Landmark, one of the biggest casinos in town at the time. Every week he socked away a few bucks from his tips, and eventually he had $500 to invest.� His first plan was to put the money into real estate. He was preparing to buy an acre in a commercial zone when he crossed paths with a tennis equipment salesman. The man was peddling an enormous contraption that would spit tennis balls across the net. He advertised it as "the first-ever ball machine." Dad was seduced. "How much?" he asked.
"Five hundred bucks."
So there it was, Dad's version of "The Lady or the Tiger?" The land or the tennis gadget? Dad wrestled with it for a few days and finally called the salesman. "I'll take it," he said.
The story doesn't end there. In the early 1970s, Dad was working at the MGM Grand. One day, as he walked past the Tropicana, he noticed that the hotel's two asphalt tennis courts were in bad condition. He found the manager and made a proposition: "I'll take care of the tennis facilities and give lessons on one court if my kids can hit on the other." Deal. So every day Dad loaded that heavy ball machine onto our truck, along with a trash can filled with old balls, and drove down to the Tropicana.
My brother, my two sisters and I spent countless hours practicing on those courts. Eventually Dad's first-edition ball machine became obsolete, and he replaced it with a newer one. Meanwhile, he was sowing the seeds of my love affair with tennis. On my fourth birthday, he arranged for me to hit balls with Jimmy Connors. A few months later, using a red Garcia wooden racket that was nearly as tall as I was, I rallied with Bjorn Borg at the Alan King Classic at Caesars.
Years later Dad told the ball-machine story to a friend. It turns out that the acre of land he had planned to buy is now prime real estate on the Strip. "Mike," the friend asked, "can you imagine what that land would be worth today?"
Dad smiled. He said, "I think I got a pretty good return on that ball machine."
To me, that captures the essence of Las Vegas and Nevada. Here you're encouraged, literally and figuratively, to roll the dice. There's a real entrepreneurial spirit. If you believe in something, you can achieve it.
It was this same think-big mentality that helped me conceive the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy five years ago. The goal was to give back to a region that gave me so much. My agent and I thought the best way was to build a charter school in a pocket of Las Vegas where the lights don't shine so brightly. I wanted to give kids access to a nurturing school environment, to technology, to hope and optimism. When we announced our ambitious plan, no one batted an eye. When we learned that we needed to raise a $35 million endowment for the school to run in perpetuity, no one suggested we dial it back.
Today 250 kids attend the school, which goes from grade three through seven, and that number will double by the end of the decade. Kids who were two grades behind have caught up to their grade levels. Teachers from all over the country apply to teach at the school. I've been humbled by how much support we've gotten from the community.