Thursday, January 13, 2011

Regarding Change, and Things That Don't...

One of the few constants in life, ironically, is that very little remains the same. The world is always moving faster, and I find myself struggling more and more to keep up. An unending barrage of information, updates, tragedies, and triumphs tumbles into our lives and, more times than not, leaves me bewildered at best and terrified at worst. Moods shift, and even the people you love and rely upon every day fall prey to the tides of time, to the movement of the world. Sometimes, I find myself wondering if I'm standing on firm ground or merely treading water, just a passenger along for the ride.

It's times like this that those few things and people that don't change become such a comfort. In spite of time and the fickleness of  human nature, we all have people that represent cornerstones of our life, stone-like pieces of our foundation laid firm and true into our very psyches.

I have just returned from saying goodbye to one of my cornerstones. Wilton McKinney was laid to rest today. 

You can read his obituary here, and you will see that he was an accomplished man, a member of the Greatest Generation, a leader, a vital part of South Carolina sports history, and a truly beloved figure to all who knew him. What you won't see are the specifics: the wry smile; the gentle demeanor; the enthusiasm and joy with which he tackled every day; the millions of strokes analyzed, broken down and rebuilt; the little lessons imparted patiently on stubborn young brains over and over until they finally sank in:
  1. "It's easier to hit up from down" (regarding topspin shots, how high to toss your serve and how long to wait for it to come back down)
  2. "You can't hit the ball until you there" (regarding footwork and court coverage)
  3. "Keep your weight forward" (footwork again, and power coming from the legs and not the upper body)
  4. "Punch it!!!!" (regarding the proper way to hit a volley)
  5. "Get your racquet back" (so you're always prepared to take the swing, have enough time, and are never rushed)
Wilton taught the fundamentals of tennis to three generations of my family. He watched the game he loved evolve from long pants, all white outfits, wooden racquets, and gentlemanly quiet to tech fibers, foward-thinking (and some times ill-advised) fashion statement, spaceaged racquets, and all out vocal assaults on the court. He also watched my dad and his siblings grow up and have families of their own; taught me, my sisters and my cousins the same lessons; and even managed to pass them on to some of our kids. Wilton has always been there, and though I'm sure he saw a million changes in the game and my family, I know he also saw the same basic fundamentals at play all throughout.

Wilton was much more than a coach. He was a friend. He was a teacher, and probably the first one that I can cast my mind back and truly remember as having had a profound impact on my life. He helped my dad, uncle, and their friends be champion tennis players, basically being a big brother to them on their high school team. When I came along, he made the first chinks that got me out of my shell as an awkward kid. I wasn't one of his big talents, but he taught me to overcome my horrible temper and find ways to win that didn't involve raw aggression.

More than anything, he always reminded us that tennis is meant to be one thing: fun. Winning is great, but Wilton always wanted us to find joy in the competition and learn lessons from every match, no matter the outcome.

Having recent undergone a pretty major change in my life, it's a real blow to lose one of my constants. That being said, I still have the lessons taught to me when I was 10 and that I hope to pass on to my kids. 

In that sense, I reckon Wilton is still there, courtside, imparting little nuggets of wisdom to help us overcome adversity and evolve into better versions of ourselves. Always reaching, trying, improving. Using those little constants that he taught us to bring about the kinds of changes we want and that will make him proud...

Wilton J. McKinney 1921-2011

1 comment:

  1. May he rest in peace...such a well written memroir. I am sure he was smiling as you wrote this....