By Nicholas J. Walz, USOpen.org
On a site named for one of the iconic female athletes of all time, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which houses the largest tennis stadium in the world named for a trailblazing African-American champion, Arthur Ashe, the US Open is a monumental reminder of the triumphs of diversity in American sports.
The fourth annual ICON Awards, held inside the Chase Center, honored three such sports figures that embodied diversity: the NCAA's all-time winningest coach Pat Summitt, Wheelchair Tennis pioneer Randy Snow and former USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Lee Hamilton, who established the national governing body’s Diversity and Inclusion Department and made multicultural participation in tennis a top strategic priority.
"Had it not been for Lee, there would be no ICON Awards," said D.A. Abrams, the current USTA Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer.
The guest list also included first-rate stars from the sports and entertainment world in attendance, such as King herself and Team USA track and field star and four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross.
Summitt is known for her success on a different kind of court, with 38 years and 1,098 victories – most all time for any coach in American college history, male or female – as a Hall-of-Fame basketball coach and was honored with the Billie Jean King Legacy Award.
"Kind of loud, isn’t it?" asked Summitt as the gala crowd of hundreds offered a rousing applause. "Kind of like how I coached.
"I want to thank you and let you know that it’s a pleasure for me to be here and honoring me with the Legacy Award. Billie Jean’s efforts opened doors for so many people, and a lot of us were able to pursue our passion because of it."
King famously championed for both Title IX in 1972, which was a U.S. constitutional amendment that made it unlawful for institutions of higher learning to exclude sports and funding for them on the basis of sex, and then realized a long-standing goal of bringing equal prize money to both the men’s and women’s US Open champions in 1973. Summitt began her coaching career in 1974 at the age of 22. In nearly four decades of coaching, every single player who played for her program graduated college.
"I loved watching Pat coach through the years. She has certainly spent her life inspiring generations of men and women from all walks of life," said King, who introduced Summitt to the podium. "I’ve heard coach Pat say, ‘The world is not a place you live in but a place you change.’"
Last summer, Summitt – who has faced the media on countless occassions after championships won and battles lost – faced the most difficult announcement in her life when revealing that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease shortly after leading her University of Tennessee Lady Volunteers to a 16th Southeastern Conference (SEC) title.
The Pat Summitt Foundation was founded in late 2011 to raise funds for research to combat early-onset Alzheimer’s and for support services to patients, their families and caregivers who live with the condition. At the 2012 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, Summitt was honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and the Jimmy V Award For Perseverance, named after Summitt’s coaching contemporary Jim Valvano.
"I have a strong feeling Pat will bring the same passion and courage in this phase of her journey that she brought to her coaching career," added King.
As a young player, Snow was a state-ranked tennis prodigy in Texas with aspirations of being a Longhorn at the University of Texas at Austin. It was during the summer of 1975, when he was 16 and working on a farm that a half-ton bale of hay dislodged from his loader and crushed his spinal cord, leaving Snow a paraplegic.
From there, Snow was not deterred in his quest to become a top athlete and instead adjusted to becoming the most skilled and determined competitor from the seat of his wheelchair. A three-time Paralympic medalist, Snow won 22 major tournament titles as a tennis player during his career and achieved world rankings of No. 2 in singles and No. 1 in doubles. He was named ITF Wheelchair Tennis Player of the Year in 1991 and USA Wheelchair Athlete of the Year in 2000, and was a member of the U.S. Men’s World Cup team during the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Snow was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame this summer in Newport, R.I., three years after his untimely death at the age of 50. At the time, Snow was mentoring youngsters at a tennis camp in South America. His father, Tom Snow, accepted the award upon his late son’s behalf.
"There came a point in my life where Randy ceased to be known as ‘Tom Snow’s son,’ and instead I became known as ‘Randy Snow’s father,’" said the elder Snow. "It’s the greatest honor a father can have – that a parent can have – to be known by your children’s accomplishments."
D. Lee Hamiton started in tennis after a successful executive existence in the oil industry in the humble role of volunteer in his native Texas, taking his passion for the game and serving in a variety of roles at the community and USTA section levels. He steadily worked his way up the volunteer chain, first serving as president of Community Tennis Associations in Houston and Dallas before joining the board of the USTA Texas Section and eventually becoming its President.
A gifted tennis player, Hamilton was nationally ranked in various age groups into his 70s. He passed away on June 16, 2012, at the age of 75.
"I wondered when I started, ‘What does this 70-year-old white guy know about diversity?’" said Karlyn Lothery, the first Chief Diversity Officer in the USTA’s history, who earned the job in 2004 and reported directly to Hamilton. "To my amazement, a lot! Lee always sought out different, whether that was age, race, gender or anything else. He went for different – he went for diversity. His loyalty and tenacity were unmatched.
"If Lee wasn’t two steps in front of me, leading the way on diversity, he was standing right beside me and helping me push that boulder forward," added Lothery. "And just in case I got knocked down a little bit, he’d also be two steps behind me to pick me up."