Let's not over-congratulate ourselves with our King Day progress, but let's do say the man had a dream that resembled what transpired in the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Some 9,890 miles from Saginaw, Mich., birthplace of Serena Williams, and some 9,707 miles from Plantation, Fla., birthplace of Sloane Stephens, two African-American women played an Australian Open quarterfinal, with the young upstart triumphing over the veteran in three sets (3-6, 7-5, 6-4). Stephens will now move on to play Belarusian Victoria Azarenka in the semis, while Williams is left wondering whether the back injury she seemed to aggravate during the match will continue to nag her in future grand slam events this year.
Could this be a passing of the torch? It certainly seemed like a fitting homage to a more barren time when the pioneer parents of both these players rustled.
I almost never think of Oracene Price and Richard Williams without thinking of such an era, early 1980s, when they believed their daughters could excel at professional tennis, of all absurdities. This would be just before the world knew much of Zina Garrison, who went through both Monica Seles and Steffi Graf to a Wimbledon final, and Lori McNeil, who once beat Graf at Wimbledon and once reached a U.S. Open semifinal in which she took Graf deep into a third. I long have wondered if, during the more barren time, the bombastic Richard ever went to a neighbor's house in Compton, effused that his daughters might win, oh, maybe 10 of the first 13 Wimbledon titles in the 21st century, whereupon he went home …
And the neighbor closed the door . . .
And the neighbor turned around and muttered, "Jeez, that guy's nuts."
Still, as the 31-year-old Serena Williams played the 19-year-old Stephens for whom Williams did some role-modeling, we could lump in another glimpse at the more barren time, for another close observer knew it intricately. Sybil Smith, Stephens' mother, competed in the late 1980s. As a swimmer. And the first black female All-American. And the first Boston University swimming All-American. And the sixth-place finisher in the 100-meter backstroke at the 1988 NCAA championships.
If the mind doesn't spin over that, the mind is not doing its job.
In the wacko way of the world, the idea of Smith excelling at swimming in the late 1980s immediately conjures Al Campanis, the erstwhile vice president of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In a train-wreck appearance on ABC's "Nightline" in April 1987, Campanis infamously lost his job -- and later showed dignity by commending the ouster -- when he said African-Americans "may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager or, perhaps, a general manager," but somehow also managed to add that blacks also could not swim well "because they don't have the buoyancy."
Yes, kids, it happened.
To Greg Cote of the Miami Herald in 1988, Smith said of Campanis, "He would have thought I was a freak of nature. It was not natural. I worked hard."
She worked hard in part from that prove-wrong impulse athletes tend to possess, sometimes as if they play games principally to prove people wrong. (See Jordan, Michael, and Fame, Hall of.) Yet the insults she had to take on and process were farcical, ludicrous, emblematic of why we should question all malarkey about times being superior way-back-when. In so many areas, times were dumber, such that many of the insults that hurt and drove her probably were unintentional.
To Newsday in 1990 she said she would hear from teammates, "You're a natural athlete. Of course you're going to be a good swimmer." Other times she got: "You're so lucky you don't have to work that hard." She weathered through the predictable ration of strangers' assumptions that she must be on the track team.
To the Herald in 1988 she said, "I definitely take pride in the fact I'm a black swimmer. It's very rare. I've been the only black female at the U.S. nationals for the last five years. I was the only black female in the NCAA championships my whole career. It seems I've always been the only black swimmer. I've grown up to accept it, deal with it."
After college she attended graduate school at Harvard and, before becoming a psychologist, traveled around trying to encourage minority youth to learn to swim, partly from her fear for them given their prominence in the drowning statistics.
The more barren time got another crescendo in 1989, when NBC News aired a documentary called "Black Athletes: Fact and Fiction." The show got some praise for inching the subject along, and it got some blasting for bringing up the subject, and it got a deeper reaction from a guest writer in Sports Illustrated.
"Long before the show had gone off the air, I was in tears," wrote guest writer Sybil Smith. "At times I couldn't even watch it. The show caused me to recall my experiences as a black athlete in a predominantly white sport. Although blacks supposedly can't swim very well -- remember former Dodger vice president Al Campanis' ridiculous remarks about our lack of buoyancy -- all too often I heard about the supposed physiological advantages black athletes had over whites.
"Some of my closest friends on the team had rationalized my accomplishments by saying, 'You're so lucky that you don't have to work that hard,' and, '[Swimming] is so natural for you.' Their words hurt, but I transferred to my pain into a personal mission and became the first All-America swimmer in BU history."
She wrote, "By the time I reached high school, I knew I had a shot at a college swimming scholarship, so I continued to work hard at swimming and my studies. Nothing came easily."
She pleaded, "Why are we constantly fighting this superiority battle, instead of asking why and how anyone in the human race develops the ability to excel?"
And she noted that long-distance running had a long history of imperviousness to blacks before Abebe Bikila won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic marathons, and Kip Keino won the 1968 Olympic 1,500.
Now we're all the way to 2013, and to a fresh generation that views Venus and Serena Williams as mainstays, normal presences, orthodoxy. The swimmer had a daughter with her former husband, the late NFL running back John Stephens, and the daughter has a No. 25 ranking and so much charisma that it's frankly unfair to the rest of us. All the way in Melbourne at a flush, gaudy event, played the daughters of the survivors of the more barren time.
And the younger one survived.