Entertainment

HUNTER: My afternoon smoking and drinking with King Richard


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It was somewhat inevitable that Richard Williams and I would find each other.

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The large Black man, father of two of the most famous women in the world, and the tabloid reporter shared a filthy secret: We both smoked.

And besides a spilled gin and tonic, an unpressed shirt and rabble like us, there were few things the tennis crowd packing the U.S. Open hated more than smoking.

We were outsiders.

The controversial sports dad is the subject of the new Will Smith movie King Richard at theatres starting Friday. The film details the rise of Williams’ daughters Venus and Serena in the highly competitive world of women’s tennis.

And their highly-competitive father.

At the U.S. Open in 2002, I was writing colour and feature stories for the newspaper that employed me at the time, the New York Post . For big sports events The Post always liked to have someone from news features to cover the action off the rink, court, field or ring.

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Will Smith as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in King Richard.
Will Smith as Richard Williams, father of Venus and Serena, in King Richard.

That edition of the U.S. Open did not disappoint: There was Serena Williams’ German stalker, Jennifer Capriati lifting her top at a Big Apple bar and Anna Kournikova’s acne woes.

And on that September day, I zipped out for a smoke and there was Richard Williams. I said hello, he was friendly, happy to have a fellow smoker to chirp with.

One of us — I’m not sure which — decided that 1:30 was not too early for a cold beer, so off we went, and that led to a memorable afternoon.

“I was sitting around drinking a beer and channel surfing when I came across women’s tennis. It was Wimbeldon. Then I saw the prize money … at that time it was around $50,000 or $60,000. Still, a lot of money,” Williams told me.

“I knew the girls were athletic and would likely get scholarships for basketball or track or something else and they would get a good education.”

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Serena, Richard and Venus Williams. A long way from Compton. GETTY IMAGES
Serena, Richard and Venus Williams. A long way from Compton. GETTY IMAGES

And you had to understand where Williams — a postman — was coming from. He was a working-class African-American man living in the bullet-scarred streets of Compton, California.

Not a lot of kids escape a neighbourhood like that unscathed.

Williams shook his head as we talked about the violence in Compton. We ordered another beer.

“So, I went out and bought tennis rackets and taught them how to play. And here we are.”

We talked about a lot of things that afternoon as the booze flowed, but that’s what I remember most.

When I staggered back to the media centre on the grounds of the Open, I ran into my colleague Marc Berman, who’s now the Post’s Knicks beat writer.

I told Berman about my encounter with Richard Williams, now 76, and he laughed.

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“Richard’s a character,” he said, “and controversial.”

He added: “But you know, neighbourhoods like Compton and Bed Stuy (Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn) would be a lot better places and the kids would be safer if there were more men around like Richard Williams.”

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Berman was right. Those hoods in some of the most God-foresaken places under the American flag — bergs like Camden, New Jersey; East St. Louis, Illinois; and Flint, Michigan.

Last summer watching my son play baseball in East York I was reminded of Richard Williams.

His coach was smiling at the teen boys. His team.

“These kids can play baseball or some other sport … or be like those kids,” the coach said.

He was pointing to a group of teens drinking and getting high by some swings.

Richard Williams would agree.

[email protected]

@HunterTOSun

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