TeamSoCal Spotlight: NJTL’s John Thomas

ChampsOfTeamSoCalTalk about humble beginnings learning the game of tennis, John Thomas has us all beat.

The 46-year-old PTR certified tennis instructor from Koreatown first checked out the courts in his neighborhood just north of downtown L.A. in his young 20s. A former star athlete from North Carolina, Thomas became infatuated with the game after a being called out on a bet from his best friend’s sister that she could beat him in a game of tennis.

Soon after, Thomas met his first tennis instructor David Smith, who invited him to attend some of his NJTL youth clinics. Thomas also received weekly half-hour lessons free from Smith in exchange for helping with the clinics.

“I must have set some kind of record,” Thomas recalls fondly. “It was a humbling experience being in there with 9 and 10 year olds. I was 22 years old and in the NJTL program for six weeks, twice a week. I even paid my $7. I figure I paid $7 and got a life worth of experiences for that.”

Thomas, who has been teaching tennis full-time since 1995, currently runs NJTL and tennis programming at four sites: Shatto Park, Echo Park, Montecito Heights Recreation Center, and Griffith Park.

He is an ardent supporter of NJTL and all it stands for. “This is the best program I’ve seen in tennis that helps the kids,” Thomas said of the NJTL program. “It works, and I’d like to see a lot more like them. If the kids can’t afford the fee for the classes then we don’t turn them down.”

He continued: “No one here is trying to make a forehand factory. The kids are actually learning other things besides tennis. They are learning to set goals, and learning life skills. They are learning to use their brain as they play, and the tennis helps them in school and with their social life. If we get a kid to use anything we taught them on the tennis court, and carry it off the court, then we have done our job.”

Thomas, who spends an average of eight to 12 hours on the court each day, is grateful for the opportunity to teach tennis. “I’m just happy that they let me be a part of it,” he said. “I’ll probably do this for as long as I’m blessed to do it. I actually love what I do. I guess I’m of that mindset where if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. So I guess I won’t be working anymore because I love what I do.”

Thomas can remember watching a young Venus and Serena Williams hit ball after ball on nearby courts, and even drew crowds at the age of eight and nine years old. “It’s nothing you forget, especially seeing two young girls,” Thomas said. “There was nothing about them that told you they were going to be hanging out at the park hitting tennis balls for the rest of their lives. Those girls were built to win, and they showed it at an early age.”

He continued: “The kids always ask me about Venus and Serena because I’m black. I’ve always said every kid has that potential, they just have to tap into it.”

Some of Thomas’ kids have done just that, including Donovan Kim, who went to the University of Florida with a goal in mind: buy his mother a house by the time he graduated. “And he did it,” Thomas said. “And now he’s in graduate school in New York.”
Thomas welcomes Kim back every time he’s in town to tell the kids about the day he learned his volley lesson.

“We were learning how to volley correctly and I said don’t swing at the volley,” Thomas said. “Somewhere in his mind he thought he was a professional volleyer and he wanted to swing. Well, he decided to swing and I hit the ball right at him and it hit him in the face. He rolled around for about 10 minutes crying. And I asked him one simple question: ‘Whose fault was it that you got hit by the ball.’ He got up and said, ‘Well you hit the ball at me.’ And he thought about it and finally said, ‘because I swung when I shouldn’t have been.’ And I asked why and he said, ‘because it’s a volley and not a swing.’ And I said ‘OK, Donovan, now we can get to work as coach and student now.”

And you have a feeling there are 20 more of these stories waiting to be told.

Steve Pratt

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