Tennis Fanatic

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 31, 2004

Tennis is a way of life for Johnny Mack Brown.

From the first time he first picked up a racket the Fort Dale Academy coach knew he was hooked.

What Brown didn’t know was that tennis would lead him on a lifelong journey that others can only dream of.

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Brown was named after University of Alabama All-American halfback and western movie star Johnny Mack Brown, who ironically built the first tennis court in Bel Air, Calif.

&uot;I was told he was really big into tennis,&uot; Brown said.

Although the Butler County native never became a star athlete or earned a star on Hollywood Boulevard, he was able to rub elbows with some of the most famous people of the 1980s.

&uot;I just woke up one morning and picked something to be the very best I can be at,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Before that, I just got by in life. When I got into tennis, that’s when my life really changed. I became a health fanatic and have been a vegetarian for over 25 years now. I wasn’t really great at any sport until somebody put a tennis racket in my hand,&uot; Brown said.

Childhood Days

Brown was born in Greenville, but was raised in Chapman, Georgiana and Monroeville. He attended elementary school in Georgiana and Monroeville until transferring to Greenville Elementary in the second grade.

As a child, Brown played Little League Baseball, Pee Wee Football and park league basketball, but said he spent most of his time in front of the tube.

&uot;I mostly watched TV and played with my friends,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I always enjoyed sports. I wasn’t always the best player out there, but I always enjoyed playing. I grew up in a sports family. My dad and my uncle were real good athletes. On both sides of the family, everybody just really loved sports.&uot;

On the baseball diamond, Brown played outfield and saw some time on the pitcher’s mound. He said he didn’t find much success playing baseball.

&uot;I was never really good at baseball,&uot; Brown said. &uot;My dad was a very good baseball player.&uot;

Brown’s father, J.W. Brown, excelled on the baseball diamond and was later offered several minor league contracts.

&uot;I did not get that gene,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Even though I loved baseball, it wasn’t my sport.&uot;

On the gridiron, Brown saw playing time at tackle. Although he was a pretty good player, he quickly lost interest in the sport.

&uot;I was pretty good, but I was usually a couch potato,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I watched TV a lot and never really got in shape. I was a big child.&uot;

Following elementary school, Brown attended Greenville Junior High. During his seventh and eighth grade years, he played junior high football and basketball.

High School Years

Brown’s interests took a turn once he entered Greenville High School.

As a freshman, he played B-team basketball and also went out for spring training football. He said that he lacked the killer instinct to continue playing football and walked away from the sport before the season began.

&uot;I remember breaking one of my buddies legs on a play and I didn’t feel good about that at all,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I enjoyed it, but I got into music and cars.&uot;

One day following football practice, Brown was introduced to tennis, the sport that would change his life forever.

&uot;I was hanging out with a friend of mine after spring training football practice and we saw some cheerleaders playing tennis and we thought we would go flirt with them,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Next thing you know, we became tennis fanatics. We played all the time not knowing what we were doing.&uot;

When Brown first became interested in tennis it was considered a country club sport. It became a professional sport in 1968. The only means for him to practice was on a rundown basketball court behind the high school.

Following his decision to not play high school sports, Brown began perfecting an extreme sport. He said water skiing was his favorite sport throughout high school.

&uot;It was something me and my dad got into,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Water skiing was my big sport in high school.&uot;

Besides spending time on the lake, Brown also spent a majority of his time working. He began his own production company his junior year and would book bands at the local recreation center and across south Alabama.

&uot;At that time, every Friday and Saturday night there was a dance somewhere with a live band,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Instead of spending money on the weekends, I would make money.&uot;

Wayne Neuendorf, one of the musicians Brown booked and also served as a roadie for, went on to be a recording engineer in Nashville, Tenn.

&uot;He was the best musician around at that time,&uot; Brown said.

Besides music, Brown also enjoyed fast cars.

&uot;I enjoyed riding around in cars,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I had the first 8-track stereo system of any teenager in Greenville. I would wash and detail my car probably every other day. I was in to fixing cars up and stuff like that.&uot;

College Life

Brown graduated from high school in 1968 and immediately enrolled in college at Patrick Henry Junior College in Monroeville.

While at Patrick Henry, Brown continued to run his production company through his sophomore year before he called it quits. He headed to Auburn University after receiving an associate’s in business.

&uot;When I went to Auburn, I continued to play tennis all the time, and I would always beat my buddies,&uot; Brown said. &uot;When I got there it was the first time I had ever seen anybody playing tennis the way you’re supposed to. I was a junior at that time.&uot;

While at Auburn, Brown met Mike Tinki, who played on the Tigers’ tennis team. The two hit it off well and began playing tennis together.

&uot;He encouraged me to take lessons and start playing in tournaments,&uot; Brown said. &uot;After that I became a tennis fanatic. I started practicing up to 10 hours a day.&uot;

Back Home

Following a stint at Auburn, Brown moved back to Greenville to get into shape and follow his dream of playing tennis.

&uot;I dedicated my life to getting in shape,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I rode a bicycle, gave up driving cars and played tennis.&uot;

To support himself, Brown worked as a substitute teacher for the elementary school, middle school and high school. He also began giving tennis lessons.

&uot;Tennis did real well,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I had lots of children. I stayed here actually longer than I planned on. I was planning on coming back, staying with my mom and dad for a while so I didn’t have to pay rent, so I could practice as much as possible.&uot;

Under Brown’s leadership, several players won state titles.

&uot;Greenville was a pretty big tennis town at that time,&uot; Brown said.

During the three years Brown was back in Greenville, he won the Andalusia Open, which was his first tennis tournament title.

California Dreamin’

Brown later accepted a job in Auburn running the city’s parks and recreation department’s tennis program.

Following his first summer in Auburn, Brown took a winter long trip to Los Angeles, Calif. to play tennis. While in California, Brown worked at a self-serve gas station in South Central, Los Angeles and played tennis on his free time.

Brown later returned to Auburn for another year before traveling back to California, where he ended up moving for several years. He began working at the same gas station he did the previous year, before he got a huge break in his tennis career.

&uot;I just happened to walk into a tennis club out there and they offered me a job,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I didn’t even ask for a job. It just happened to be one of the nicest clubs around. I went from working at a gas station to meeting Captain Kirk in just one day.&uot;

Brown quit his job at the gas station and began working at The Racquet Center in North Hollywood near Burbank, which featured a two-story clubhouse and 20 tennis courts. On his first day of work, he had the opportunity to meet William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the hit television show, Star Trek.

&uot;The reason I took the job is because you got free court time,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Court time was real expensive. A lot of the better players around town played there, so that’s where I wanted to be. I was in the right place at the right time.&uot;

While working for The Racquet Center, Brown became Silver Spoons star Rick Schroder’s personal tennis instructor.

&uot;He would come driving up in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce,&uot; Brown said. &uot;He had the No. 1 show in the world at that time.&uot;

Brown said he remembers Schroder playing racquetball with Different Strokes star Gary Coleman.

&uot;I would call my mom and say ‘You will not believe who’s sitting in front of me,’&uot; Brown said. &uot;It would be some soap opera or movie star.&uot;

Brown also had the opportunity to work with Melanie Chartoff, star of Fridays, a Saturday Night Live spin-off; Bo Bridges, who played J.R. on Dallas and movie star Gregory Peck.

Besides getting the opportunity to meet several television and movie stars, Brown also had the opportunity to extra in several television shows. He was featured in a Simon and Simon episode and a Great American Hero episode. He was also featured playing racquetball with Chartoff on PM Magazine, a nightly entertainment show.

&uot;Any time they wanted to film a movie or TV show that had anything to do with tennis or racquetball, they came to our place,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Part of my job was when they filmed the movies and TV shows that I’d come in early in the morning and do whatever they needed. They would always give me some parts. They gave good tips and I had the opportunity to eat with them.&uot;

Even Brown’s locker was featured on a movie.

&uot;My locker was in the Jagged Edge,&uot; Brown said. &uot;They filmed a locker room scene and my locker’s in it.&uot;

Brown was also in the mix of television and movie shoots even when he wasn’t working.

&uot;On my way to work, I would be riding my bicycle and they would be filming Knight Rider,&uot; he said.

But Brown didn’t get caught up in all the celebrity hoopla. In fact, he never saw himself on television.

&uot;I didn’t even own a television,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I think that’s the reason I got along well with the celebrities because I didn’t know who they were. I knew who all the tennis players were, but not them.&uot;

Brown’s practice partner, Stewart Kerr, grew up in San Francisco and his next-door neighbor was actress Jane Russell. Since his mother knew several actors, actresses and singers, Brown and Kerr had the opportunity to house sit for actress and singer Eartha Kitt, who was one of the original cat women.

&uot;His mother hung out with Joey Bishop, Frank Sinatra and a lot of the famous celebrities,&uot; Brown said. &uot;She knew all these celebrities and Eartha was going on tour and needed somebody to take care of her estate. So we stayed in her pool house and watched over her estate for about a year.&uot;

The racquet club also served as the host site for the 1984 Olympics while Brown worked there.

Sweet Home Alabama

Brown returned to Alabama after four years in California. He was rehired as the Auburn Parks and Recreation tennis director where he worked for the next seven years.

During that time, Brown earned the No. 2 state ranking in mixed doubles. He continued to compete in hundreds of tournaments finishing his career with seven titles.

While in Auburn, Brown also became coach of Auburn High School’s tennis program. He helped lead the Tigers to a runner-up spot and the girls to a third-place finish in the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s Class 6A tournament in 1987.

In 1993, Brown accepted the head tennis and junior varsity girls basketball coaching job at Fort Dale Academy after returning home to take care of his parents. During this time, Brown continued to give tennis lessons.

Brown led the Lady Eagles’ tennis team to three consecutive Alabama Independent School Association Class AAA state titles from 1996-98 and back-to-back championships in 2000-01. He also led the Lady Eagles’ junior varsity girls to a perfect 20-0 season and the state title in 1997.

&uot;Winning five state championships have been great and the future looks really good,&uot; Brown said. &uot;I’ve got more good children out playing tennis now than I’ve had anywhere, in L.A. or Auburn.&uot;

For his success on the tennis court, Brown was named AISA District Coach of the Year in each of FDA’s five state title years.

Brown also served as varsity girls assistant basketball coach when the Lady Eagles claimed state titles in 1996 and 2004.

&uot;Tennis is the second most popular sport around the world,&uot; Brown said. &uot;Once you are introduced to it, it’s a lot of fun. I can introduce people to it, but they have to enjoy it. I want children to enjoy tennis and for it to be a fun thing for them. I’m going to play until I can’t play anymore.&uot;