Banks Changing Lives as the City's Pied Piper of Tennis

Banks Changing Lives as the City's Pied Piper of Tennis

By John Packett, RTA Contributing Writer

George Banks discovered tennis when he was around 12 years old. He started playing the game at Armstrong High School, which was close to where he grew up in Church Hill and where he received help with his strokes and strategy.

It began a lifelong love affair with the game that has carried over into the present and shows no signs of ending any time soon.

“I got started through the NJTL , the National Junior Tennis League, which is what it was called back then,” Banks said the other day at Battery Park, where he has mentored hundreds of inner-city kids over the years.

“Frank Crawford was the coach at Armstrong High School and he worked for the [city of Richmond] Parks and Recreation in the summer time over at Armstrong. He formed a [NJTL] team over there and he taught a lot us of tennis.”

Because of the folks who worked with him and helped him along the way, Banks is seeking to do the same thing now with youngsters in the city who are looking for something to do, especially during the summer months when school is out, and can’t afford to pay for lessons.

Banks is president of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club, a non-profit organization established for the purpose of promoting youth — as well as adult — tennis in the metropolitan area through free and affordable lessons and clinics.

“Tennis was big back [when he started],” said Banks, a master patrol officer for the city of Richmond who works the night shift (downtown VCU area) in the Fourth Precinct. He’s been with the Richmond Police Department for the past 25 years.

“I had a lot of mentors in those days. Then I met Dr. [John] Watson around my junior year, when I started coming out here [Battery Park]. The city began closing a lot of the Rec and Parks programs, so everybody started coming to Battery Park, where all of the talent was.”George Banks2

That included the Harmon brothers, Rodney and Marell, who were two of the best players in the city in those days.

Banks, now 51, went on to play tennis (No. 1 singles as a senior) and football at Benedictine High School and then tennis (where he played as high as No. 2 singles) at Virginia Union University for Dr. Watson.

Following a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Banks returned to Richmond and served as an assistant coach at Union. He also taught lessons for the Richmond Racquet Club at Battery Park for a while until tennis began to lose its appeal on the local scene.

“It just died out,” he said. “The courts became vacant. You come here and see nobody on the courts.”

Banks decided it was time to “wake tennis up” by forming the Central Richmond Tennis Club some eight years ago. The CRTC was the forerunner of the Metro Richmond Tennis Club but everything was derailed when flooding from Tropical Storm Ernesto in 2006 put the Battery Park courts out of commission for a couple of years.

When the courts finally became playable again, Banks began Tuesday Tennis, which offered free lessons to youngsters through the Police Athletic League.

“When we first started, about 35 kids came out,” Banks said. “The next Tuesday about 65 kids came out. The courts were full. It looked like the old days. We had seven, eight, maybe 10 volunteer coaches teaching the kids.”

The following year, the Richmond Tennis Association got involved with Banks’ program, lending volunteers, racquets, balls and courts.

“The RTA has been able to provide some indoor opportunities in the winter for these players,” said Fred Bruner, past president of the RTA who has worked closely with Banks in coordinating courts at various indoor facilities around town.

“But none of that could have happened without George’s efforts to find ways to help these kids get indoor time to improve their game. The RTA has helped him get equipment, like the QuickStart nets and balls for training the 10-and-unders.

“Again, he has been the one who has carried that equipment all over town, to Boys and Girls clubs and the Police Athletic League, and connected with the kids we want to reach for the game of tennis. George has spent his own money in some cases, getting strings, racquets, getting kids into tournaments.

“He is like the pied piper, attracting youngsters to the game. He is to these kids what Sam Woods was to an earlier generation of public parks players. He uses tennis to change kids’ lives. And the RTA is indebted to George for giving us a means to reach these players.”

Banks has coached the Armstrong High School boys’ team for more than a decade and they have produced several college-worthy  players such as Sonny Bost and Muhammad Gueye, who played No. 1 singles this spring for the Wildcats.

Varina’s No. 1 girls’ player, Toni McDonald, who has committed to Randolph-Macon, is part of Banks’ Battery Park program.

“George has created a link that had been missing between the RTA and the inner city,” said Bruner. “As a high school coach in the city schools, he is able to connect us with kids from the city schools who are committed to the game.”

In addition to the RTA, the Metro Richmond Tennis Club is supported by the Police Athletic League and the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, who lend financial and volunteer support.

“We have over 200 kids in the program now and it’s still growing,” said Banks, who is proud of those accomplishments. There are six teams that play in Richmond’s Junior Team Tennis League, and “That’s a first,” he added.

Is it possible for another Rodney Harmon, Junie Chatman or even Arthur Ashe to develop from this program?

“As I look around, there’s a lot of kids and a lot of talent,” said Banks. “I’d say Muhammad is probably the closest thing Richmond has had in a while to a Rodney Harmon. And there’s some great talent coming after him.

“But like I tell them, you’ve got to have dedication and hard work. Here’s the key, and this is our motto: Hard work beat talent when talent don’t work hard. I don’t care how good you are, if you’re not working hard, the kid with less talent is going to beat you.

“He might not look as good as you doing it, but the bottom line is he’s going to beat you.  We preach that to our kids.”

Banks has never forgotten all the adults who helped him improve his game, and he wants to keep doing the same for today’s youngsters.

“There were always a lot of adults out here [Battery Park], a lot of adults at Armstrong,” said Banks. “There was never a time when there was just kids out here. From Mr. Crawford, Mr. Bailey, Mr. Dandridge, Doc Watson, oh man, there were so many.

“When you came out here, even though you were a kid, an adult would hit with you, and that meant something. While he hit with you, he coached you. A lot of those adults were our mentors. They taught you a whole lot. Then in the evening, we’d play among each other.”

Banks is working very hard to get more adults back on the courts to help the kids maintain their interest in the game.

“We’re trying to bring the adults and kids together,” he said. “What I tell them is you need these kids to keep your side going because they’re going to be adults. So you need these kids, when they turn 18, to come play on your team. Make them obligated to you.

“That’s how I started. Somebody invited me to the tennis court. I was a basketball player. Once I got there, the competitive nature took over. Somebody beat me and I didn’t like to lose. So I came back so I could get better.”

Banks hasn’t stopped coming back to the courts, and his generosity and time has been beneficial to hundreds of Richmond kids, changing their lives for the better by using the game of tennis to keep them occupied and out of potential trouble.