In the summer of 1981, Mike Silverman of City Parks Foundation, a Levittown, N.Y. resident, was fresh out of college with an undergraduate degree in political science and plans to take a year off to work before going to law school. When Silverman accepted a six-week summer job teaching free beginner tennis lessons to kids for the New York City Parks Department, all of his plans changed.
“I realized how much I enjoyed working with children who might not be able to afford tennis lessons and being involved with a sport that I loved,” said Silverman.
That first summer ended with a free, fun-filled clinic for 300 kids in Central Park featuring John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. Local tennis hero Vitas Gerulaitis helped organize the clinic and made sure that every child received a free tennis racquet.
“That event in Central Park made a lasting impression on me about the potential of connecting public parks with the private sector to grow the sport and inspire kids,” said Silverman.
For the past 30 years, Silverman, director of sports for City Parks Foundation, has been involved in youth tennis, and today, oversees one of the largest municipal tennis programs in the nation, reaching 7,500 children annually with free lessons and competitive opportunities in 38 public parks throughout New York’s five boroughs.
When he first started, there was a citywide beginner program and a small advanced academy at the National Tennis Center, but no real pathway existed for kids to progress. According to Silverman, “We were also too dependent on the City for funding, which limited our ability to expand our services and control our own destiny.”
One of Mike’s first initiatives, with support from USTA Eastern, was creating the “Penn Series,” an authentic junior tournament circuit held in New York City parks. The popular low-cost summer circuit made USTA-sanctioned tournaments more available and affordable for urban youth, and helped pave the way for a Metro-region ranking designation for New York City.
Mike also enlisted Reebok’s support to save and expand his advanced-training academy from budget cuts, a partnership that would last 28 years. The effort has since helped produce more than 100 college scholarship recipients.
A major speed bump occurred in 1991, when Mike and most of his staff were laid off by the NYC Parks Department due to widespread budget cuts. It proved to be a blessing in disguise. The newly-formed non-profit organization, City Parks Foundation, hired Mike to preserve and grow the program. It has flourished ever since, thanks to longstanding public/private partnerships from key supporters such as the USTA, Chase and tennis legend Billie Jean King, who learned to play the sport in a public park.
In 1998, King helped Mike establish an annual tennis benefit that has since raised in excess of $2 million for City Parks Foundation’s youth tennis efforts.
“I have seen, firsthand, the magic that Mike works, and I admire and continue to support the enormous, free tennis program he oversees for the City Parks Foundation,” said King. “Mike has introduced and popularized our sport to countless kids and adults over the past 30 years and he is making a big difference in the lives of so many people.”
Mike has used his tennis program as a model to create additional free, park-based opportunities for kids to learn new sports, such as track and field, and golf.
Still, after 30 years, Mike Silverman maintains a one time-honored tradition that has never changed. Every August before the U.S. Open, he still organizes a free pro event in a city park for kids, just as Vitas Gerulaitis did.