Tennis clubs and public housing might not seem like a likely pair. But don’t tell that to Michael McCasland. McCasland is the director and creator of the Marcy Tennis Club, a non-profit organization dedicated to bringing tennis to residents of public housing here in Bed-Stuy.
Since last spring, McCasland has been leading a tennis clinic at the Marcy Houses on Saturday afternoons, on a tennis court near the corner of Myrtle and Nostrand, at the southwest corner of the massive 27-building housing complex.
The program is completely free and volunteer-run. McCasland and his team of ten to twelve volunteers supply the rackets and balls and even mobile nets for his twenty-odd students.
A North Carolina native, McCasland moved to Bed-Stuy three years ago, when he took a job as a forensic scientist with the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. He lives just down the street from the Marcy Houses and says it was a “no brainer to teach tennis at that court.”
The court itself is gritty-- the net, a chain-link fence. But perhaps that tough exterior is somehow fitting for the low-rise housing development, which is more frequently associated with old Jay-Z videos than it is with tennis.
McCasland started the Marcy tennis club last year, wanting to buck the stereotype that tennis is an “elite, white guy sport,” he said. So he blanketed local bodegas with flyers advertising the Marcy Tennis Club. On his first, day not a single person showed up.
But he didn't give up. He continued his outreach campaign, spreading the word about his new club to anyone who would listen and eventually built his class to about 25 regular students. The children range in age from four to 16, with a rotation of 10-12 volunteer instructors.
McCasland stresses that he aims to teach tennis second. His primary goal is to use tennis as a vehicle for mentorship in an underserved neighborhood.
The students seem to appreciate this aspect. Jaylan, a sixteen-year-old regular student and tennis club member, says of the instructors, “They help us focus and not get into arguments.” Jaylan likes that tennis is a friendly, respectful sport, and he plans on continuing to play, he says.
Like most kids, the students can get rowdy, hitting tennis balls onto Nostrand Avenue or sometimes at one another. But if they act out, they have to run a lap. Said one instructor sternly to a misbehaving student, “What’s our first rule? A racket is not a weapon.”
Most of the time, though, the students run drills, practice their strokes and play competitive mini-games like King of the Court, where they line up to try and score two consecutive points on the “King,” trying to oust him and assuming the throne on the other side of the net.
Parents like the discipline of the program, too. Cheryl Gilliam, whose five-year-old son Jordan is back for his second summer as a Marcy Tennis Club member says, “The tennis is secondary, which is a good thing. It’s convenient, and the price is right -- it’s free,” she says with a laugh.
Will she continue to have Jordan play tennis? “Definitely,” she says. She has even bought him a racket of his own so he can play every day.
The good news for Bed-Stuy parents is that McCasland has plans to expand his program to other housing projects in the neighborhood.
“We have to grow slow, but in the long- long-term, we’d like to create a tennis league between the different housing communities,” he says, expressing interest in expanding to Lafayette Gardens and Sumner Houses, both of which, he hears, have tennis courts of their own.
But McCasland does not need a proper tennis court to bring his program to other parts of the neighborhood; he has recently expanded the program to the Tompkins Houses, two blocks east on Myrtle Ave from Marcy, where there is no tennis court.
In the midst of the 16-storey towers, using a handball wall as a backstop, McCasland teaches his new students tennis on a small mobile net, which takes only a few minutes to set up and break down.
“With these mobile tennis nets you can bring tennis anywhere. Anybody can play,” says McCasland. He thinks this kind of accessibility is what the sport needs.
But with expansion comes one minor problem. “We need to pick up about 5 or 6 more instructors,” says McCasland, should they expand the program any further. He wants to keep the student-to-teacher ratio low so that each tennis club can continue to focus on mentorship.
In the past, McCasland had found volunteers through word-of-mouth and friends of friends. One volunteer, Christin, simply happened upon the program while exploring Bed-Stuy, shortly after moving here from St. Louis. Now McCasland recognizes the need to make a more formal effort to gain new volunteers should he expand the program in a meaningful fashion.
He’s considering reaching out to the United States Tennis Association, which has a database of volunteers, but he expresses concerns about bringing “strangers” into the program. The instructors are mentors, too, after all.
In the meantime, you can find McCasland on Myrtle Ave every Saturday afternoon, bringing tennis from gated communities and country clubs to NYCHA tenants and their neighbors.
The Marcy Tennis Club is a free program every Saturday from 1:00 to 3:00 pm, between May and October, weather permitting.
Parents can take their children to the Marcy site, on Myrtle Ave near Nostrand Ave, or the Tompkins site, in the middle of the block bordered by Myrtle Ave, Park Ave, Throop Ave, and Tompkins Ave. Rackets, balls, and nets are provided by Marcy Tennis Club, which you can find online here.