William Atwell King, Jr., a founding member of the legendary funk/soul band The Commodores, has a clear passion for music and performing. But he is also passionate about tennis, and the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center in particular.
A Late Discovery…
As much as William enjoys tennis today, it was not his sport of choice growing up. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 30, 1949, grade school and high school athletics meant “the big three: baseball, basketball and football.” And, of course, there was the music too: William played trumpet and piano. He also loved to dance. Oddly, it was the bandstand that led to the tennis court.
William enrolled at Tuskegee University in 1968 and there he met some fellow students hanging out in the rec room playing ping pong and pool. One of those students was Lionel Richie. William, Lionel and three or four others quickly learned they each played music, Lionel favoring piano and sax. Just a few days after meeting, the guys asked their dean if there was a place they could use to jam. The dean offered them a small room at the bottom of the student cafeteria. “There was only one door and a single overhanging bulb and it didn’t take long before we were sweating big time.” They called it the hot box, and there they became The Commodores.
Well before any records, the group traveled in a van playing gigs around the south. During sophomore year, the band made it out to Motown Studio in Los Angeles. Lionel, who played high school tennis, spotted tennis courts across the street from the studio and asked William if he wanted to play. William responded, “Man, that’s not a real game.” Nonetheless, William gave it a try. The first ball William hit went over the net, and over the fence into the street. But he was hooked. Laughing, William reflects: “That afternoon I bought everything, racket, shoes, clothes, sweatbands, anything you could think of for tennis.”
…Turned into a Lifelong Passion
Without formal instruction, William kept at it, and joined the Tuskegee Tennis Team during his junior year. (The coach was actually the assistant basketball coach and not a tennis player.) William earned the number one spot during senior year and won the SIA Conference Singles Championship. He was also runner-up in doubles.
Given his court success and love for the game, William considered playing tennis professionally after college. For about six months he played the Southern Circuit, taking time off from The Commodores and driving to venues from Nashville to Mobile.
“It was rough going and a tough way to make a living,” says William. “These players started playing at 5 or 6 years old and had the muscle memory for tennis I didn’t have starting so late,” he added. Some of the players were living in their cars. Prize money was barely $5,000 – $10,000. “I could at least afford a motel room, and soon I was letting guys use my shower and sleep on the floor.” After a tournament in Mobile, William decided he could always play tennis, but if he was going to take a swing at music, it had to be right away.
With his degree in Business Management from Tuskegee, William re-joined The Commodores in earnest. In addition to playing trumpet, guitar, keyboard, flute and congas, William is the group’s choreographer. He married his songwriting partner Shirley Hanna-King in 1976, and they raised four children in Beverly Hills.
Dedicated to his young family and work, William didn’t play tennis for about 19 years. Then, when he was about 52 years old, his oldest son handed him one of his old rackets and said “Dad, we are all grown, it’s time for you to play some more tennis.”
And that is what William has done. Now a joyful and playful granddad, he is back on the circuit. William has achieved a top 10 ranking in the USTA Senior League (over 60) and he plans to play the National Clay Tournament in New Orleans later this year. But it hasn’t been easy. William has fought through a heart attack, prostate cancer and blood clots. “The most important thing now is staying in shape.” Hitting the home gym a few times a week helps offset the wear and tear of his continuing international performances with The Commodores and travel between his homes in L.A. and Atlanta.
William thinks his serve and forehand are his best strokes, but will go with whatever is working best that day. “It’s a matter of working the ball around until you get the right shot.” William also prefers singles over doubles, but loves doubles, because “it adds to the fun and camaraderie.”
What He’s Found at the Bitsy Grant Tennis Center: A Place to Make Shots and Shoot the Breeze
When he is in Atlanta, William also plays tennis at Cherokee and on his home court, but he always looks forward to getting over to Bitsy. You get the feeling that the tennis center is like another home to him. “I just love the people, especially the older gentlemen. I enjoy hitting with them, and it’s so fun to listen to the old stories. We sit and rock, watch the players and make each other laugh, it’s just a great place to be,” says William.
As for Bitsy’s courts, William says “they are beautiful to play on” and he singles out Alido Ford: “He does such a great job and works his butt off.” William should know; he first played at Bitsy in 1978 when he first moved to Atlanta, and there were times when the courts were marred with gravel and weeds.
In 1983, he and his family moved to Los Angeles, but he returned to Atlanta in 2006. Today, he plays at Bitsy often and prefers the clay courts, which, he says, are some of the best he has seen anywhere. But, he cautions, “Bitsy needs to be looked after constantly, otherwise it will fall apart.”
Why He’s a Friend of Bitsy Grant Tennis, and Inviting Others to “Swing to the Beat”
William has certainly done his part to preserve and promote Bitsy. He is a long time dedicated Friend of Bitsy Grant Tennis (FBGT) volunteer, and served as a FBGT board member from 2009 to 2014, promoting the amazing clubhouse and court renovation.
According to William, people don’t realize how much the board and other FBGT volunteers do, like collaborating with government departments, vendors, and neighbors to make and keep the grounds attractive, safe, and friendly.
“The Friends of Bitsy Grant do nothing but great work,” says William, whether it’s battling for appropriate tennis lighting or for better upkeep of the facility’s courts and sidewalks. He notes that the government can’t do everything needed to keep Bitsy in good shape, let alone add much-needed improvements, like the new shaded decks, shady covers, and landscaping. “That was FBGT’s work.”
William’s own extensive efforts as a FBGT volunteer have rightfully placed him as the Honorary Chairman of this year’s FBGT “Swing to the Beat” fundraiser, set for November 3, 2017 at Bitsy Grant. The event promises to be a great night of tennis, music, food, and fellowship, with all event proceeds going to fund improvements to the center’s building, courts, and grounds. William says he is happy and honored to be the event’s Honorary Chairman, and hopes his involvement will bring more attention to the FBGT’s vital role in maintaining and improving Bitsy Grant.
During a recent meeting with William at Bitsy on a hot Tuesday morning, I saw William’s passion for the courts first hand. He reveled in the Bitsy Grant atmosphere – its place of history, competition and camaraderie – as he looked over the groomed courts and greeted all who passed by with a warm smile and hello. While he waited for an afternoon match with friends, he couldn’t help joining FBGT board member Sam Daniels on the court for a workout. Watching William rally with Sam, I could see that this Commodore’s smooth moves and solid hits would keep on coming.
A special “Thank you!” to FBGT board member Jay Hirsch for writing this article.