At 6′ 4″, Robert gets to look down at the service box before launching his rockets. Unsure what to do, I stand a couple feet back from the baseline and await my fate. As the tennis ball blasts towards me, I close my eyes and just swing, baby swing. By the time I do, Robert is already at the net waiting to put my shit away.
I first met Robert a little over a year ago by a mutual friend who also loves tennis. We’ve played multiple times since and it’s always been a blast. As is customary in any first time meeting, I got around to asking him what he does. “I’m a writer, or at least try to be when I’m not too busy looking after the kids!“, Robert responded humbly. He went on to say that he’s working on the occasional screen play, but struggles to find the time.
“A starving writer just like me,” I remember thinking to myself. “Maybe our buddy can help pull some strings for you in the industry?” I suggested turning toward our mutual friend we love. They both smiled and shrugged it off.
Each time we met, I wondered how Robert’s writing was coming along, but never asked. Leave the man alone to do his work, I told myself.
A LESSON IN HUMILITY
One day, the front desk attendant at the tennis club caught me ogling a beautiful, black Italian coupe. The wheels on this baby were massive and I couldn’t help but admire the stitching in the leather seats. As a car fanatic who went through seven cars in eight years, I tend to decompose into a shady character whenever I come across a fine automobile. Luckily, nobody has pistol whipped my head yet when I try and inhale that new car smell from a cracked window.
“Nice car right Sam?” the front desk attendant surprised me.
“A beauty for sure!” I responded as if I had just been caught eating too many free samples at Trader Joe’s.
“What does Robert do?” the front desk attendant asked.
“Huh? This is Robert’s car? You mean tall Robert with the occasional black rim glasses? He’s a writer,” I said, still a little surprised.
Robert and I weren’t playing that day as we both had separate matches. With a lemon Gatorade in hand, I went home to peruse the SF Chronicle online where I found a picture of Robert on the homepage! What’s going on here, I wondered as I read the article about Robert’s life and his charity work as the Co-Chair of the SFJazz Center fundraising initiative.
It turns out that Robert already wrote a best-selling novel entitled, Boonville, in addition to a screenplay! All this time, I thought he was just like me, just some guy looking for his big break.
Not once did Robert ever talk about his literary success. All we ever did was battle it out on the tennis court and recap our games afterward. Tennis is what bound us together. Robert, good man, you sneaky dog!
SUPPORTING THE SFJazz CENTER IN SAN FRANCISCO
The first time I remember being tickled by jazz was when the great trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis came on campus to perform. It was freshman year and at the time, I had spent most of my life overseas. With little exposure to jazz abroad, I was overjoyed hearing Wynton fill the auditorium with sweet sounds and improvisations that only he could do. I was hooked and wanted to play the jazz trumpets myself, but alas, I was already too old to learn.
When I discovered Robert was co-chairing the capital raising campaign for the SFJazz Center, America’s first dedicated jazz center in the nation, I had to get involved! I e-mailed Robert asking how I could contribute, and he mentioned he was throwing this “small party” at Bimbo’s 365 jazz club and that I should come.
I was thinking of writing a check for $300 for my date and I to attend. A hundred fifty dollars a person sounded like a reasonable sum don’t you think? When I asked where I should send my donation, he told me not to worry about it, and that he appreciates any future support once the center is open.
For the life of me, I couldn’t find how much the tickets cost as I wanted to find someway to give back. When I finally found the online brochure, I had to scroll all the way to the last page in the fine print to see the cost. $100,000, $50,000, and $25,000 tables were listed first! And then, at the very bottom in microscopic print it wrote, “Available tickets in limited supply for $1,000 and $500 per person.” Ouch! I’m glad I didn’t mention the $300 or else I would be so embarrassed!
With Maceo Parker and Ahmad Jamal headlining the event, I was excited to attend. When we got to Bimbo’s, we realized this was no “small party”, but a full-blown Hollywood style rager! No less than four photographers were outside asking us to pose in front of a advertisement-studded backdrop. At the end of the red carpet there was a man with a microphone, ready to interview only the most luminous of luminaries.
Attending were author Amy Tan, NAACP President Ben Jealous, comedian Robert Townsend, NFL great Ronnie Lott, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsome, Mayor Willie Brown, the honorable Kamala Harris and many more. Chris Tucker was on hand to receive the Humanitarian Award for his good deeds. Later, none other than Clint Eastwood took the podium to give Ahmad Jamal, 81 the Lifetime Achievement Award!
No wonder why the cheapest tickets cost $500 a person. What a fool I was not to understand the full magnitude of the event.
THE LOVE OF ONE THING
What stood out most from Robert’s speech was his message that it is the love of one thing that brought us together. It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you do, how much you have, or who you are. All that matters is that you enjoy jazz and are dedicated to seeing its music flourish.
As co-chair, Robert gave a speech thanking the various patrons and providing a progress update of the auditorium. Robert was a natural in front of a powerful audience, probably because he literally knew everybody there. At one point, Robert rattled off the names of no less than ten supporters in the house without a skip of a beat. I don’t know many people who can do that without a little cheat sheet, but Robert did.
The love of one thing is the same on the tennis courts. Your opponent could be a big wig CEO of some major corporation whose calendar is booked for months in advance. Even if you are a first year lackey out of college, you and the CEO are equals, if only for a couple hours.
When there is a common interest, we find ourselves reverting to our most pure, inner selves. We don’t get to know someone because we want something from them. We get to know someone because we share a common passion. Relationships develop in the most purest way over the love of one thing. It’s how every relationship should be.
STAYING TRUE NO MATTER WHAT
Have you ever come across a really attractive woman who not only has a great personality, but also gives you the time of day, is a PhD who loves playing hoops and drinks beer for lunch? No? Well, neither have I. However, if I was a woman, I can imagine Robert to be that kind of catch for any lady out there. Good thing for his wife, she’s already got him locked down!
If you get to know Robert, you’ll realize he’ll never forget his roots. From his time growing up in different foster homes in Northern California, to his Aunt in Malaysia who took him in, to his friends back east from the University of Miami where he pitched some ball, Robert always goes back.
As a bootstrapping entrepreneur, I’ll never be able to match the financial contributions of Robert or his many friends. But, what I will promise is my loyalty and support. Thanks again for your generosity and kindness Robert. You’ve reminded me about the importance of humility as well as the privilege to give back to the community.
Robert’s event ended up raising $1.1 million dollars towards the $63 million SFJazz Center Auditorium which is to be opened on MLK Day in January, 2013. Please click the link to learn more about SFJazz and the nation’s first and only stand-alone jazz auditorium.
Photo credit: Robert and Obama. Jim Goldberg.