South Orange tourney pays tribute to Kenny Graham

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A year after the tennis courts at the Baird were named for local tennis legend Kenny Graham, South Orange residents took to them again for the round-robin doubles tournament to honor his memory on Saturday, Sept. 28. Two winning teams and two finalist teams were crowned champions at the event, which aims to keep players playing on the courts as much as possible. 

“Everybody growing up here had a bike, roller skates, a sled and a tennis racket,” Lee Boswell-May, an organizer of the event and a friend of Graham’s who grew up with him in South Orange, said in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “Kenny was the only one who kept playing with the tennis racket. He taught so many people how to play.” 

Graham, who died in 2017, was a lifelong village resident who had a bachelor’s degree in zoology, but decided to become a tennis coach. He taught at area tennis clubs before becoming a coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Rutgers University-Newark. But it was the Baird that he claimed as his home court. 

Jeannine Redd was bringing her son to preschool at the Baird 15 years ago when she met Graham on the courts. She wasn’t a total novice at tennis, but had only played sporadically at that point. She began learning from Graham and tennis is now a constant in her life. 

“There would be a lot of people lined up here and there was one loud person, which was Kenny Graham,” Redd joked in an interview with the News-Record at the event. “He just drew me in. He was a fixture. Now it’s just a passion.”

Graham coached many local residents, from young children to adults. He charged less than many other coaches and asked for equipment donations to provide to needy families. When he wasn’t playing tennis at the Baird courts, he was hanging out there, playing chess or listening to jazz music. 

“Everyone knew him,” Redd said. “Everyone loved him.” 

Even before he built his career around tennis, Graham was teaching South Orange residents how to play. Boswell-May described a time when the Orange Lawn Tennis Club wouldn’t allow black or Jewish people to join, so the sport was not as accessible to everyone, as it should have been. The local children would find other places to play, and leading the charge was Graham. 

“He always found places to play,” Boswell-May said. “We would hit the ball at a wall to practice. It was just ingrained in you. I remember Kenny raising his racket and screaming about not being let into the other places.”

Tournament Director Juan Davies explained how the round-robin competition works. Men’s and women’s doubles teams play in the over 45 age group category or the open category in nine games per match. The preliminary matches set up the group rankings and the final games. Jesse Spector and Brian Pfrommer won the men’s open tournament, beating Jon Cherns and Jason Weinstein. The men’s over 45 tournament was won by defending champions Eddie Aung and Michael Paul, defeating Carlos Vasquez and James Cadeau. 

Barbara Quackenbos and Virginia Class Matthews beat Litao Mai and Carole Huynh in the women’s over 45 final. 

As preliminary rounds ended, players sat on the metal bleachers to watch the finals. That, Redd said, is the real goal of the tournament. 

“It would be nice to keep people coming back to the courts, because Kenny did that,” she said. “He kept that energy here. He would be here playing and hanging out all the time. He kept people coming back, even if it was just to watch. He was always teaching you something, it wasn’t just tennis. He had this natural wisdom. He was a mentor.” 

Photos by Amanda Valentovic