In the era of the Williamses and the Woodses, lightbulbs are going off in the heads of lots of African-American fathers--men who figure they have the perfect plan to lead their little ones into the promised land of professional sports. People might tell them they're crazy to think they can guide those knock-kneed kids all the way to Wimbledon or the Masters, but they know that back in the day, people said the same thing to Richard Williams and Earl Woods. And who's laughing now? � This is a story about one of those black fathers and the beginning of a journey in tennis. Meet Tom Stafford, a fun-loving, hard-charging, big-dreaming, expletive-spewing, 54-year-old multimillionaire. "Just because I've made some money, I don't think I'm any better than anyone else," he says after parking his Lexus in his driveway in the tony Philadelphia neighborhood of Overbrook Farms. His large house is crammed with art, including an original Romare Bearden sketch. "I know I'm a nigger," Stafford continues. "I just happen to be a rich nigger."
Stafford's nine-year-old son, Jabari, and seven-year-old daughter, Emira, are riding their bikes on the sidewalk. Even though neither child is much taller than the net, Tom says that for the past couple of years he has spent $25,000 a year on their tennis, and he has put together a little team of adults to help make them pros. There's Tom Allsop, the 23-year-old coach from England who lives in the Staffords' carriage house and gives the kids almost daily lessons. There's Endre Witthoeft, a personal trainer who does Pilates and plyometrics with the children. There's Laura Selby, who comes on Sunday to do yoga with them. And there's Leland Hardy, a former sports agent and a longtime business adviser to Richard Williams, who works on the children's marketing possibilities.
"Until black people put ourselves in total control of everything--the facilities and training of our kids--we won't make black kids into champs, because we run into subtle racism a lot," Stafford says. "Just to rent a court you deal with that s--- because white people hate that we're good.
"I know for a fact that if my kids keep going, they'll be the Number 1 players in the world one day. My daughter's gonna kill these bitches. She's gonna be on the tour by 11. I guarantee it. Mr. Williams ain't the only crazy motherf----- out here."
In case you haven't noticed, Stafford curses every second or third sentence. His wife, Michelle, isn't thrilled about it, but as little Emira clings to his knee, he says, "I want my kids to know the raw f------ me."
The Staffords may look like the next Williams family because they're a black nuclear unit storming the tennis world together, led by an egotistical, free-thinking dad. But Richard Williams turned to tennis to make money for his then working-class family. Tom Stafford, who spent his childhood on welfare, is already rich: He owns a computer-repair business that services large companies, and he has various real estate holdings. Wealthy families don't usually pursue athletic glory, but the drive that helped Stafford succeed in business is powering his dreams for his kids.
"I'm a competitor," he says. "I like to win, and I like to do s--- that people think you can't do. I gotta get up every day and have a challenge and battle the naysayers and say, 'I told you so.' That's my high. And you know the saddest thing about us African-Americans? We're the least likely to dream. We're so cynical, we don't wanna dream."
Stafford is also raising his kids to have a political consciousness that'll make them less Venus and Serena Williams than Arthur Ashe, or maybe even Malcolm X. "These black athletes who say, 'I'm not obligated to my community,' that's horses---," Stafford says. "Because in America, when the Man sticks his foot in your ass, you've got one place to run, and that's back to the community. And if you can do something for the community, you have to be as outspoken as you can. We need the guy who made it to reach back and say, 'I'm still one of you. My job is to try and pull you up.' I'm raising my kids to use tennis as a platform for African-American issues, not just to be jocks."
About a year and a half ago, during a vacation in Florida, Tom took the children to Richard Williams's house so Williams could see them play. The afternoon meeting didn't go quite as the Staffords had expected. Perhaps Tom was looking for some sort of blessing that Williams wasn't interested in conferring. Both Jabari and Emira recall that Williams was gruff with them. "He was so blown away by the kids, but he didn't want to admit it," Tom says. "I don't get headaches, and after two hours with Richard I had a headache. He f------ wants you to believe he's Jesus, sayin' he's a billionaire and writes poetry and is a filmmaker. It was so bizarre. If you sit down and talk to him for five minutes, you'll see he's an absolute ... I don't wanna say moron, because it's not about academics, but the man makes no common sense or any other kind of sense."
If Malcolm X were alive today, he'd probably have a clothing line, and so will little Emira. Tom Stafford is a relentless businessman, and he sees a hole in the market. "Everything should have a revenue stream attached to it," he says. "If these kids are gonna go out there and play tennis, I'm gonna make some money off of 'em. And there's a huge void out there in children's clothing. I see a line of tennis apparel called E-Smooth, with a logo of Emira running to hit a ball with a little ponytail flailing in the back, kinda like one of them Michael Jordan silhouette things." (One hopes Hardy is better with licensing than he was with athletes' contracts, having negotiated running back Ricky Williams's much-derided low-pay, high-incentive deal with the New Orleans Saints in 1999.)