Monday, September 5, 2011

Murray Scholar Special Edition

Introducing University of Minnesota Murray Scholar
Phaa-Der (Sunny) Thao 

This year we are welcoming five talented college journalists into the family of Murray Scholars.
This week we introduce you to Phaa-Der (Sunny) Thao, a Murray Scholar from the University of Minnesota.
Sunny will be a senior at Minnesota with a double major in professional journalism and marketing. These majors are a meld of her eclectic passions, abilities, and interests, which include writing, communications, marketing, and art.
She is interested in marketing, advertising, technical writing, copy writing/editing and other creatively inclined communications-related fields.  
Sunny's winning essay:
   In March of 1980, a little boy left a Thai refugee camp with his two sisters for America. His mother's paperwork was delayed so she was left behind. During a layover in San Francisco, the boy watched two men hit fuzzy green balls at each other inside a fenced court. The boy asked his sisters if he could have one of the balls. When they told him no, he began to cry. Another man traveling with the children took pity on the child and shyly entered the court. In pantomime, the man explained to the other men why the child was weeping. The men smiled and handed a ball to the stranger. The boy blinked away a giant tear as he reached out to receive his first tennis ball.
   It would seem that this boy's encounter with tennis three decades ago was prophetic. Koua Yang is now a certified tennis teaching professional and a social studies teacher who coaches the boys and girls tennis teams at Harding High School, an inner-city high school.
   "Being in a refugee camp was like being a chicken in a coop. You were locked out of society," Yang says. "When I first saw that tennis ball, it was inside a cage too, except this time, I wanted to be inside that cage. I wanted what they had."
   After his father died as a soldier who fought in America's Secret War during the Vietnam War, Yang and his family fled Laos and found refuge in neighboring Thailand, where they settled in Ban Nam Yao, a refugee camp, for five years. In 1980, they were sponsored by an uncle who was among the first wave of Hmong refugees to come to Saint Paul, Minn., where Yang and his family live today.
   On a cloudy spring evening, Yang sits at a table in May's Deli & BBQ, a Vietnamese restaurant tucked in an East St. Paul strip mall, and orders "the usual." Minutes later, an elderly waitress serves him a steaming bowl of pho, or Vietnamese beef noodle soup.
   May's Deli is one of Yang's usual haunts, especially after long days of teaching and coaching that leave him too exhausted to fix a home-cooked meal. Daily practices run from 2:30 p.m. until 7 p.m., most of which he oversees by himself. Though it's hard work doing it alone, he says it's worth it.
   "I enjoy teaching kids at every level of play, and I like having control of practices," he says. "I want things to be done the right way."
   This perfectionism, however, is not out of some anal-retentive tendency to exert his influence. It is a recognition from experience that a person with few resources cannot afford to make many mistakes. Everything he does on the court is to help his players improve their skills as a tennis player and as a person.
   Yang says a lot of the lessons he teaches on the tennis court can be transferred into daily life. In addition to insisting that his players are in good academic standing, Yang emphasizes hard work, self-esteem, and gratitude in his lessons. Harding's boys' tennis team developed a reputation among their conference for being the most respectful and sportsmanly team, win or lose.
   Yang is a self-taught tennis player who played for his high school team and currently plays competitively in local tennis leagues. As a coach, he wanted to better himself to benefit his players. He read books and magazines about the latest tennis techniques and teaching styles.
   Yang is constantly on the lookout for opportunities for his students, the majority of who are Hmong Americans from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. He forged relationships with local fitness clubs, where he secured tennis scholarships and indoor court time for his team during the winter off-season. He says he wants his players and poor kids to have the resources and the opportunities that many privileged white suburban tennis players do.
   "If they're hungry, I want to be there to give them those opportunities," Yang says. "I never want them to wonder 'what if.' "
   Finding all of these resources for his students was to level the playing field, Yang says, but it was also a way to make sure his team had no excuses when they performed poorly during practice and during matches.
   "I don't want to hear that your opponent is better than you are, because they have personal trainers, or because they're white and wealthy, or even that the sun was in your eye when you were serving," Yang says. "Forget those variables. It's about effort and mental toughness."
   Four years ago, Yang transformed a ragtag inner-city team into conference champions, the first for the Harding Knights in 20 years. Though his passion seemingly is for tennis, it is the kids Yang loves.
   "It's that genuine connection with people that drives me," he says. "I want you to succeed, I want you to improve, because I care about you."
   One of Yang's former tennis players, Mai Tong Xiong, a student at the University of Minnesota, says he really connects with his students.
   "Mr. Yang taught me to be more confident," Xiong says. "His lessons clicked with me. He's very passionate and motivating."
   Apart from his "crazy obsessive" work ethic, Yang is a character on the courts; his sense of humor and charisma make his students laugh just as much as he makes them sweat. For instance, he gives his players nicknames based on their physical appearance or personality.
   Through his dedication to his students, Yang has opened doors for disadvantaged minority tennis players. He works overtime to level the playing field in a predominately white sport, one that is supported by systems that have kept many opportunities closed to players like his.
   "I think about how I immigrated here with nothing. I never want my players to feel like that," Yang says. "If they want it, they can have it. Why not give them everything they need?"
Now please enjoy Jim Murray's column from March 13, 1986 — "There Was No Love Lost, but the Match Was."
March 13, 1986, SPORTS


There Was No Love Lost, but the Match Was

   Sometimes you have to wonder about tennis. I mean, is it really a sport or a tantrum? The United States Lawn Tantrum Assn.?
   Do you really need a backhand or just a rotten disposition? Can't it be played by grown up ladies and gentlemen? Does it lend itself only to mastery by the spoiled brats of our society?
   Do you have to be bad-tempered to play it? Immature? A case of arrested emotional development?
   Are the game's secrets unlockable only to bratty little types who will hold their breath if they don't get their own way? The kind of guys who will kick their governesses in the shins if they can't tie cans to their dogs' tails?
   It sometimes seems to be less a game than a hair-pulling contest. Someone once called it the Balkans of sport because there's so much mean-spiritedness and spite and malice built into it. It can't be played by Frank Merriwell or Jack Armstrong or anyone with a sense of fair play or sportsmanship, it would seem.
   Oh, you have to be a considerable athlete to be a tennis player. It calls for as much dexterity and skill as any sport played with a moving ball and an implement to hit it with. It calls for more stamina than almost all.
   You need the speed of a sprinter, the eye of a .300 hitter and the killer instinct of the heavyweight fighter. You have to be a pretty good actor, too. You have to look one way and hit the ball another. It's no place for anyone fat, slow, dense, or short of breath.
   Or, apparently, anyone with good manners. It's not a sport where you hold anything in. Your most successful tennists are guys who throw furniture, racquets, balls and sweaters, who yell at the spectators and threaten the officials, and in general behave like someone about to begin to chew the Astroturf.
   It wasn't all those set points that burned Bjorn Borg out. It was keeping that poker face for the world.
   In spite of all this, and the fact that he was a card-carrying member of this new breed, I had always liked Jimmy Connors as an athlete.
   Jimmy always struck me as the Dead End Kid of the game, not the poor little rich kid. Jimmy always seemed like the kind of guy God didn't make into a tennis player, he just gave him the bare essentials and told him to take it from there.
   Jimmy always gutted it out. He was like the kid in the schoolyard. You knew if you picked a fight with him, it might go on all night.
   Jimmy never hit a ball easy in his life. He grunted through life and through every shot he ever hit.
   When he came up, he was the first big-time player I ever saw outside of the girls who had to put two hands on his backhand to get it over the net. But that was all right. With Jimmy. He came to win, not look good. His return of service was so good it was said he could probably get a machine gun bullet back to you — for a winner.
   He came along at a time when foreigners were dominating the game but nobody ever beat Jimmy without getting his hair mussed.
   He outlasted all of them. He was aloof, mean, dogged — but as calculated as an adding machine. The surface didn't matter, the venue, the climate, the opponent. You got what you paid to see with James Scott Connors, five sets of dock-fight tennis. A brawl, not a tea.
   So, I was more than a little dismayed the other day to see where Master James picked up his ball and went home to mother. He had struck his colors and marched off the court in a tournament semifinal against Ivan Lendl down in Florida, the newspaper story said.
   The headlines made it look as if the bad boy had surfaced in the 33-year-old winner of five U.S. Opens and two Wimbledons and that he had quit rather than face certain defeat.
   Connors was aghast when the subject was broached.
   "Quit?" he exploded. "I quit? Never! I have been playing tournament tennis for 18 years and I never quit yet. I put everything I have into every game. I put everything I have into every shot! I am still playing this game hard, long after all the guys who came up with me are gone — the Stocktons, the Borgs. Does that sound like a guy who would quit?
   "I was defaulted. We were in the fifth set and the score was 3-2 and I hit a ball that would have made it 30-15 and when I asked them how they could make a call like that I was penalized a point. Then I was penalized a game and pretty soon I was penalized again and it was 5-2 without a shot being hit.
   "They told me to go on in and play. But, it was a changeover game (players change sides of the net) and the rules say I had 90 seconds to change sides but, after 54 seconds, they penalized me another game and, all of a sudden, it's all over and they said I defaulted!
   "I never quit but just standing there I was losing game, set and match. I was told the match was over.
   "I mean, you have to stick up for your rights even on the tennis court. When you're out there grinding it out for 3-1/2 hours in the hot sun and all of a sudden someone sitting down in a chair under an umbrella is beating you, you have to ask what is going on. No matter what the sport, you can't let people walk on you."
   Maybe not. And maybe it's not just tennis. On the other hand, what can you expect of a sport where love means nothing?

Reprinted with permission from the Los Angeles Times

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