Louisville women’s tennis coach Mark Beckham is the lone Black head coach at Louisville and one of just 79 in Power 5 conferences. (Photo: Photo submitted)
Mark Beckham’s story can’t be told without Chickasaw Park.
He spent nearly every summer day playing tennis on the green and blue, multi-colored courts at the park located on the west end of Louisville. Beckham, Louisville’s women’s tennis coach, played there from morning to night.
It’s where his father, who began playing tennis in his mid-20s, first introduced Beckham to the game when he was just 6 or 7. The uber-athletic Beckham gravitated to the sport. He loved playing it with his father every day and as he got older began to realize how good he was.
Soon his love of tennis overtook basketball. But as he pursued a career in tennis, Beckham, the University of Louisville’s only Black head coach, also experienced racism in a variety of fashions. Whether it was a statement said to him or just things he saw playing a predominately white sport, Beckham never let that draw him away from the sport.
Driven by an ambition to not only be great, but for tennis to help him pay for college, Beckham remained dedicated to the sport.
A Courier Journal analysis of the head coaches at Power Five conference programs, revealed only 79 of the 1,073 head coaches (7.4%) are Black. Of the 65 Power Five conference schools (including Notre Dame, a football independent but member of the ACC in basketball), 59 have two or fewer Black head coaches. Beckham is one of just 17 ACC Black head coaches.
A head coach for the last 13 years, and one of just three Black women’s tennis head coaches at the Power Five level, Beckham holds his title with pride.
Pride for Chickasaw Park. Pride for coaching his alma mater and in his home town. Pride for who he is.
“I don’t care what anybody says, the lessons I learned playing tennis in the late ’80s and in college through the early ’90s is without question unique,” he said. “It shaped me to who I am today, the good and the bad. It’s definitely had an effect on me. The experiences I’ve had and the stuff I’ve seen for sure has changed who I am today.”
Growing up in the sport
Beckham was an elite tennis player growing up.
He was never the most technical player — he didn’t add that facet to his game until he got to U of L — but he was always more athletic than everybody else.
Growing up just five minutes from Chickasaw Park, the kids in his neighborhood played football during the fall, basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring. Somehow he found time to fit in tennis, as well.
When he got on the court, he just let his athletic instincts take over. And, for much of his career, that led to success.
“Anytime I was playing against somebody that knew what they were doing I was able to nullify because I was athletic,” he said. “That is how I won. It wasn’t because I knew what I was doing, I was just getting every ball back and playing the way I wanted to play.”
As he traveled from tournament to tournament and various country clubs, Beckham learned on the fly. He found out what it meant to play tennis competitively.
But he also learned what it meant to be Black, in a predominately white sport and environment. In the late 1980s, there was another Black tennis player that would play in the tournaments with him, Beckham said. But other than that, when Beckham walked into a country club, the focus was on him.
As if because there he was a Black tennis player, everybody had to be near him.
Louisville women’s tennis coach Mark Beckham talks to his team during a practice. He is the lone back head coach at Louisville and one of just three back women’s tennis coaches in Power 5 conferences (Photo: Photo submitted)
“You have to think this is the ’80s so a lot of people I was dealing with in country club sports really never dealt with Black people before, like I was their initiation,” Beckham said. “I was the first person they’ve come into contact with. There were a lot of times where they would try and figure things out through me because they had no reference really.”
Beckham doesn’t talk much and he keeps his emotions close to the chest, like he did even as a child. But he learned early that while some people use the phrase “I don’t see color,” as an excuse to say they aren’t racist, he didn’t have that luxury.
Every country club he went to, eyes were on him. He had to see color.
“I don’t take that as a bad thing, but it was like I can’t just walk into a place and not see color. I had to because the color of my skin determined how people would react and treat me,” he said. “I always had to be on alert with that.”
As eye opening as those experiences were for the young Beckham, there was a time in college that stands out vividly for him.
Beckham and his teammates were out at a club, having a night out, and got into an altercation with some Black students. Beckham and his teammates left to go home, but what was said was worse than any altercation. Paraphrasing the conversation, Beckham recalled his teammate saying “Mark, those guys we just dealt with are N—–s. You’re not, but those guys are.”
“That’s the ignorance we talk about,” Beckham said. “I had to deal with stuff like that quite a bit. I felt like I was the educator on stuff.”
Beckham said he never held any animosity toward them, because he dealt with it growing up, he just knew people were ignorant and didn’t know. But it did change his perspectives on things.
“To that point, that was a change of how I thought about stuff,” he said. “To that point I was like ‘All right, I’m going to show these people.’ Tell them or let them know that no I am no different than anybody else. I thought it was a responsibility. But at that point, I’m like, ‘I’m done with this. I have to be myself and you all can figure out.’”
Responsibility as a Black coach
When Beckham’s playing career at Louisville was over, he still had another year to finish school. So he approached then-men’s tennis coach Rex Ecarma asking to stay on staff for a bit.
He did so as a graduate assistant while finishing his education degree. He was an assistant, primarily for the men’s team, after that before becoming the women’s tennis head coach in 2007.
But coaching wasn’t always Beckham’s plan. As a kid, he had dreams of being the next John McEnroe or Bjorn Borg.
Coaching, though, was a perfect mix between his teaching degree and his tennis background.
“It was something I really enjoyed because I was affecting players in more than one way,” he said.
He had some success early in his career. In his first year, he took the Cardinals to their first NCAA appearance in program history. His second year, he led the Cardinals to third place in the Big East. Louisville was 8-6 this year before the season ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
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But more important than any on-court achievements is the responsibility he feels when it comes to his players off the court.
According to the most recent data available in the NCAA’s demographics database, only 6% of women’s tennis players were Black in 2019. Louisville, though, has one Black player, Raven Neely, and multiple international players.
Still, many players didn’t have the experiences Beckham had growing up and while he doesn’t force his beliefs on his players he thinks it is important that they understand that nobody is different.
“I have a responsibility to make sure that I take care of them to the best ability I can and I also want to be able to influence them to understand that we are not different other than the color of our skin. Take that away we are all the same,” he said. “Anybody that comes across me I feel like they become part of the solution.
“… I have had some girls in the past, by no means were they racist, but they had that systematic that was kind of in them and they didn’t even realize it. And then by dealing with me, they figured some things out and understood some things a bit better. They are better equipped to stop this terrible poison, I call it, of racism.”
Beckham and his team have had discussions about racial inequality as protests have taken center stage in Louisville and across the country. Louisville’s director of mental health performance, Vanessa Shannon, has helped facilitate some of those conversations as well.
The feeling he gets from his team is that they want to know what they can do to help, Beckham said. For him, there are two things he wants to see come from these discussions and protests.
“I don’t want this moment in time to die,” he said. “I think we have to take advantage of it right now because I don’t know if we are going to get this opportunity again. The second thing, this may be me being clouded because of my age, but I don’t think this is going to happen fast so I have to put faith in the younger generation. Any parents that have kids, don’t let the racist poison get into your children.
“I just feel like we are a minority, so we have to have a big chunk of the majority helping us and getting on board with this movement. When that happens, my kids lives can be quite a bit different than what we are experiencing all this time before up until now. It can truly be different.”
Beckham is in a position to impact the lives of many around him. He doesn’t take that for granted, just like those moments playing tennis with his father at Chickasaw Park.
Cameron Teague Robinson CTeagueRob@gannett.com; Twitter: @cj_teague; Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: courier-journal.com/subscribe.