A few days ago, Dr. Robert M. (Bob) Screen became one of 15 people inducted into the Hampton University (VA) Athletics Hall of Fame. Let us hope that his extraordinary record of achievement as a college coach soon will be recognized by the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the nation’s governing body of tennis.
Bob Screen worked his way into the hall of fame in my heart nearly 50 years ago in a gesture of kindness and generosity that probably saved my life. Years later, it became clear to me that that 50-year-old gesture epitomized the goodness of the man, long before he became a giant among college tennis coaches. Consider his achievements:
* Now 75, he enters his 41st season with an extraordinary record of achievement as head coach of Hampton’s men’s and women’s teams (The women’s squad was formed in 1996).
* He’s the only African American coach to lead a Historically Black College/ University to a national tennis title. Hampton won the NCAA-II Championships (1976 and 1988) and was ranked No. 2 in the NCAA-II six times.
* While playing in Division II, Screen led Hampton to 22 consecutive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) conference titles. Several of his players from that era, including Ya Ya Doumbia, Bruce Foxworth and Roger Guedes , competed as pros on the ATP Tour.
* When Hampton moved up to NCAA-I in 1996, Screen’s teams continued to excel. He has led the men’s team to eight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) titles. The women have won five MEAC titles.
*He is one of only six college coaches to win more than 1,000 team matches.
The racial barriers and other barriers that he overcame make his success all the more remarkable.
Consider these obstacles:
* Racism — During the early years of Screen’s head coaching career, which began in 1968, most of the local colleges refused to play Hampton because of racial bias. Those who did put Hampton on their schedule took them off when it became clear that they couldn’t beat the predominantly-black small college power. However, several northern colleges, including Colgate and Rider College, played Hampton during spring break trips.
* Limited talent pool — Once integration took a foothold in the south, black colleges no longer could attract the best black athletes, even in tennis. The top black athletes in football and basketball were gobbled up by white college’s, even in the south. The nation’s best black scholastic junior tennis players followed suit. Determined to maintain a program marked by excellence, Screen extended his search for top juniors beyond U.S. boundaries. He recruited juniors from South America, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe. Grateful for the education and opportunities received, those who came during those early years encouraged other talented players from their respective countries to Hampton. Thus a tennis dynasty took root at this small black college. In recent years, most college programs, including tennis powers, such as UCLA, USC and Georgia, have recruited juniors from foreign countries, a practice Screen found successful in the ’70s.
* Funds slashed: Recent budget cuts at colleges and universities across the country crippled or shut down sports programs at every level, but especially among non-fund producing team sports. Screen no longer offers full scholarships at every position, but he continues to field competitive men and women’s tennis teams.
In his acceptance of his Hall of Fame plaque last Friday, Screen attributed this honor and special moment in his life to one word – Love.
“Love of my God, my family, friends and players and love of this great institution,” he said.
I was a recipient of Screen’s selfless brand of love in 1960 when he was Hampton’s assistant coach and I was a freshman with a medical problem that worried him far more than it did me. Years before, as a young teen, I lost several of my teeth when a brick slammed into my mouth during a teens-gone-mad brick-fight. (Don’t ask.)
After a few weeks at home, my mouth returned to its normal size and I returned to school. I noticed, however, that a soft spot had formed in my palate and when I pressed my tongue against it, pus would ooze from tissue just above my front teeth. It wasn’t painful, so I never told my parents about it. Besides, it didn’t make sense to burden them with a doctor’s bill sans pain. For years, I let it fester. Screen noticed me wiping the gum-line above my front teeth one day, so I told him about it and why I had never sought treatment.
At his expense, Screen sent me to an oral surgeon, who took x-rays and told me that I had an enormous cyst in my palate that might be malignant and should be removed immediately. Again at Screen’s expense, the surgeon removed the cyst, which was benign. Screen, no doubt, showed the same level of generosity and concern for hundreds of other Doug Smiths throughout his illustrious career. His primary goal, of course, was to make us all better players. By example, he made us more caring, better human beings.
Dr. Screen is high among the list of unsung tennis heroes who have made contributions worthy of recognition not only by the African American community but by the tennis community at large. The USTA should examine his record and recognize his legacy.