Leonora King doing the work to close the gap between sport of tennis and kids in Detroit

Leonora King and Jeanna Trotman
Posted at 3:03 PM, Feb 03, 2023

Due to budget issues, tennis has been removed as a sport in many schools in Detroit. There is only one single indoor tennis facility in the entire city. The disconnect between the sport and Detroit’s kids is only growing and becoming more prominent. But that’s where Leonora King comes in.

“I played at Palmer Park all my life,” King recalled.

Twelve years ago at Palmer Park, it started as an effort to save parks across the city of Detroit. But it turned into something so much more than King ever could have anticipated.

In 2010, Detroit was threatening to shut down 77 parks across the city. That included Palmer Park and access to its tennis courts.

Born and raised in Detroit, King was a student athlete at Mumford High School, a school that no longer offers tennis.

“It would’ve made a difference in my life,” said King. “I had never really seen young black people play tennis at the level that these kids were playing. I’ve seen Arthur Ashe and people like that on TV,” said King.

From Mumford, she went on to play NCAA Division-I tennis at Western Michigan University as the first class of scholarship female athletes under Title IX in 1976..

“I was the first black tennis player there, man or woman, period,” said King.

King says there’s a tremendous amount of pride in that - but also some pain. She said as a student athlete, she was called a racial slur for the first time in her life in the small town of Marshall, MI as the Broncos women’s tennis team made their way back to Kalamazoo.

“Someone driving down Main Street saw me coming out and just yelled it out,” said King. “I was taken aback.”

Her experience as a minority in the sport she loves drives her to bring tennis to kids in Detroit.

“It’s always good to be inspired by people who look like you,” said King.

After over a decade since the start… the People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy brings in over 200 kids every summer. Whether it’s just something to do or a path to college or professional tennis, the academy fights against the sport’s biggest road blocks for inner-city kids: Exclusivity, cost, and accessibility.

King’s passion for the sport and for the city shows in the kids that reap the benefits of her academy.

“I feel like I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today without her teachings,” said Jacquelyn McClanahan, senior at Cass Tech High School. McClanahan is the captain of the school’s tennis team and has earned an academic scholarship to the University of Michigan.

David Jones, a thirteen-year-old participant at People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy says “she’s really inspiring, she cares a lot about us, she’s really nice, and she’s a really good coach.”

As for the future kids of Detroit, King hopes that tennis becomes more accessible, that the academy grows, and that more tennis facilities open within Detroit’s city limits.

“Some people have different challenges,” King explained. “Ours might be race, some people might be physical challenges , but you just got to put yourself out there and do the work and you can’t let those obstacles that people have falsely created stop you.”

Leonora King has no kids of her own, but she says she loves and is a mother to hundreds of kids through her tennis academy. Progress has been made at Palmer Park over the last 11 years and Leonora King is optimistic about what the next 11 have in store. For information of how to participate in the academy or how to help, visit the People for Palmer Park's website.

During the pandemic, the People for Palmer Park Tennis Academy, against all odds, stayed running. In 2020, the academy won the Best Community Tennis Association in the country. It was an award Leonora King received from her idol and tennis legend Billie Jean King. From one King to another, Leonora admitted that moment really put all her hard work into perspective.