Assumptions were made, jokes were told and Larry Holmes' confidence was shaken.
Growing up with a stuttering problem, including some early years in Harlem, was difficult for Holmes.
“It was hard… real hard,” Holmes, 31, said. “I’d have long delays (when speaking) and they thought I was slow or retarded. I stuttered and they’d make fun of me. It made me self-conscious and withdrawn.”
Three factors got Holmes, who is Mountain Pointe’s boys tennis coach, through his formative years and gave him the confidence to become a teacher and coach despite continuing to stutter.
His athletic ability alone was an equalizer, his grandmother, Daisy Holmes, who raised him, his twin brother, Terry, and his cousins, was the backbone and a chance meeting with tennis legend Arthur Ashe was the example of how to overcome.
The most important part of his development was watching Daisy, who still lives on New York, find a way to provide for everyone and is a proud woman.
“Everything I dealt with my grandmother was there for me,” he said. “She basically made me who I am today. She gave me toughness by watching her having to deal with raising us. Seeing her sacrifice and do whatever is needed made me a tough person and having the attitude of not being scared or afraid.”
Ashe, who won three of the four grand slam events, helped in that he was an African-American who played tennis like Holmes. He was one of the best in the world in a sport and overcame the plight of being a black man dominated by white males.
He was a civil rights activist and once walked off the court after an opponent used racial slurs toward him during a match.
It was glimpse into what Ashe dealt with and how he handled it by never giving up his self-respect in any way.
After his career he used his fame to keep civil rights and racism in the forefront. Holmes, who was playing at a high level of tennis at a young age, found out Ashe was going to be a keynote speaker at the USTA Eastern Association’s banquet.
Holmes, who was 12 at the time, got his coach to take him to the event where he got to meet Ashe, who died a few weeks after on Feb. 6, 1993, due to AIDS-related pneumonia. One of the last pictures taken of the tennis icon was with Holmes and after his death several newspapers and TV stations tracked him down.
“I wanted to be part of it and there was a charter bus that was going to go down there,” said Holmes, who teaches physical education at a Phoenix elementary school. “He spoke about all of the obstacles he had to endure and going through HIV. It made me think to myself if this man can overcome as much as he has and he is still fighting against the odds for what he believes in, then I’m not going to let (the stuttering) stop me from doing whatever I want.”
After a collegiate career in tennis at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, N.C., he decided Arizona was the place for him after helping a teammates move here.
Holmes, who played professionally for a short time on the Challenger circuit, became a teaching pro at Kiwanis Park before taking over the Pride’s tennis program three seasons ago and coaches the junior varsity girls basketball team for Mountain Pointe.
Every endeavor he has requires standing in front of a group of people and talking. He still stutters and pauses, but never does Holmes let it change his approach to life.
“When he is excited his communication is fine,” Pride athletic director Ian Moses said. “If you have ever seen him coaching at a basketball game he is always talking and getting everyone’s attention. What I like about him is the expectation level he has for the athletes he is dealing with and how he is always pushing them to get better.
“With a lot of head coaches there (are a lot of egos) involved, and with Larry it is never about him.”
That’s because Holmes continues to overcome just as his role models did before him.
“I’ve dealt with it since Day 1 and never once did my family treat me differently,” he said. “In New York you have to be tough and I just learned to deal with it. I can’t control when it happens and when it does I just keep going.
“You can’t let something like that stop you, otherwise a lot of people would never do anything. You have to live your life, and that’s what I try to do.”
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.