Sunday, August 06, 2000

The other side of Andre Agassi


Charity and compassion as much a part of player's life as tennis

By Michael Perry
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Andre Agassi helps a child pick out shoes in a program funded by his charitable foundation.
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        Here's the Andre Agassi the casual sports fan knows: flashy clothes, shiny earrings, a ton of tennis talent. Capable of great things when his heart is in the right place.

        Here's the Agassi that Adrienne Cox knows: selfless, caring, generously giving time, money and even the shirts off his back. Capable of great things because his heart is in the right place.

        Cox, assistant director of the Department of Family & Youth Services in Clark County, Nev., remembers picking up the phone one spring day and finding Agassi on the other end. He was in his car with girlfriend Steffi Graf, parked in front of Child Haven, a public shelter for abused and neglected children in Las Vegas. He said he had items to donate. Cox watched as Agassi and a few boys carried five large bags of Nike apparel into the facility.

TENNIS MASTERS CINCINNATI
  Andre Agassi will be playing here this week along with Pete Sampras and the world's best players. Agassi is the top seed.
  • When: Main draw (64 players), Aug. 7-13
  • Where: ATP Tennis Center, Mason
  • Tickets: Prices vary by day (from $14-$36). Call 651-0303 or TicketMaster at 562-4949.
        “It had been in his closet,” Cox said. “It was slightly used, his stuff that he wore. It was gorgeous. And he is actually schlepping it into Child Haven.”

        That doesn't even scratch the surface of Agassi's contributions to Child Haven and the Las Vegas community.

        The Agassi Center for Education, a 10,000-square foot learning center for Child Haven residents, opened in August 1997. The Andre Agassi Charitable Founda tion donated more than $800,000 for the $1.1 million project.

AGASSI'S GIVING
  The Andre Agassi Charitable Foundation:
  • Has donated more than $1.2 million for the Andre Agassi Boys & Girls Club, which opened in 1997.
  • Has provided close to $2 million in donations, equipment and activities for Child Haven, a public shelter for abused and neglected children.
  • Has donated $1.5 million toward the construction of the Andre Agassi Charter School, which is to open in September 2001. • Plays host to The Grand Slam for Children gala, held each of the past five years. That has raised a total of more than $14 million. Last year's event, which featured Elton John, LeAnn Rimes, Gloria Estefan, Stevie Wonder and Luther Vandross, raised close to $4 million.
  • Donated $1.45 million this year to:
  The proposed charter school ($750,000)
  Boys & Girls Club ($189,716)
  Assistance League ($150,000)
  UNLV Scholarship ($100,000)
  Inner-City Games ($75,000)
  Boys/Girls Hope of Nevada ($75,000)
  I Have a Dream Foundation ($50,000)
  New Horizons Academy ($24,000)
  Las Vegas Sun Camp Fund ($20,000)
  Class! Publications ($5,000)
  Youth Concert Series ($5,000)
  Kids Christmas ($5,000).
        Child Haven's campus consists of six cottages, housing up to 80 children. They were previously served by a two-room schoolhouse with one teacher. The state-of-the-art ACE building is seven rooms, with a library and a computer center. The school district has assigned seven teachers and aides. The quality of education for these kids in protective custody has improved dramatically.

        The foundation bought computers and software for Child Haven's individual cottages. Now Agassi's foundation is providing $720,000 for a $1 million Special Needs Cottage — due to be finished next spring — for children with muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome, disabilities and contagious diseases requiring isolation.

        “He's personally vested in this,” Cox said. “It's not just writing the check. He interacts with the kids and staff. He goes into the toddler cottage, and there are six kids crawling all over him while he's reading stories.”

        This year alone, Agassi's Foundation, which he started in 1994 to aid at-risk children in Las Vegas, donated $1.45 million to 13 local organizations.

        It has raised more than $14 million since its inception. And the foundation has no overhead. Agassi pays for office space, supplies and salaries, so every penny raised goes to children in Las Vegas.

        “I care about my community because it's my community,” Agassi said. “I hope that in everything I do, people find inspiration. That's an incredible way to live.”

Cincinnati's top seed
        Agassi, the No.1 seed in this week's Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati, is the ATP Tour's most charismatic celebrity. His personality always has drawn attention to the sport even as he was accused early in his career of tanking matches and with a sometimes distant relationship with the media.The “Image is everything” Canon commercials he shot in the early '90s didn't help. But he has emerged as a more thoughtful figure to the general public.

        “You can't expect people to understand you that don't spend a lot of time with you,” he said. “You get pieces of somebody's life at a distance and you have to make efforts as a journalist to put it in a box and stick it in on the page, and that's not an easy thing to do. You kind of expect it to be off the mark.”

        Agassi is all business at tournament sites, walking purposefully to practice courts, on and off the grounds. He sometimes looks uncomfortable when swarmed by fans, and he remains guarded with the press.

        That's why, those closest to him say, much of the public does not know the real Andre Agassi.

        In 1993, Agassi hired Julie Walther to assess the needs of child-related organizations in the Las Vegas area, to see how a foundation he was planning could best help. For six months, she researched dozens of groups, then prepared a 60-page report.

        Agassi personally went to check out some of the organizations and, in some cases, visit with the kids.

        “Giving back is something I always had an intention of doing if life gave me those opportunities,” Agassi said. “The question was how and when.”

Who is he?
       

        Story ...

        Perry Rogers, Agassi's best friend the past 19 years, was a freshman at college in the midst of final exams. He was on the phone one night, telling Agassi how homesick he was and how difficult concentrating on his work had been. The next day, Agassi called and told Rogers to check the dorm's mail room. Rogers found a Fed-Ex package containing chicken fingers from Tramp's, a favorite Las Vegas restaurant of the two. Enclosed was a note saying: “You'll be home soon. Just fight it out and know I'm here for you.”

       

        Story ...

        Agassi was visiting the Agassi Boys & Girls Club, where he also funds a tennis program for underprivileged kids. He was rallying with a talented 9-year-old they call “Little Stan.” The kid blasted a shot on the line. Agassi sprinted over and sliced a shot back. “Little Stan” was waiting at the net and volleyed the ball to the oppo site court to win the point. He raised his hands in victory. Agassi just laughed, then went to give the child a high-five.

        “He's really given these kids an opportunity, and they realize that,” said Ki Kroll, director of Agassi's tennis program. “A lot of these kids are now setting goals. They're thinking about college scholarships. They're thinking about education even more. I've seen improvement in every kid here.”

        Story ...

        Three years ago, the 14-year-old daughter of Gil Reyes, Agassi's personal trainer and security manager, was in a snow-disc accident and suffered a broken neck.

        Agassi arrived at the hospital at 3a.m. with a bag of burgers and vowed to spend the night by his friend's side. “Gil, get your rest, I've got it covered,” Agassi told Reyes. The next day, when Kacey Reyes said she was warm and the hospital was unable to crank up its air conditioning because of the other patients, Agassi went out and bought a window unit, returned to Kacey's room and installed the air conditioner himself.

        “When you have a need, here's a guy who just can't do enough to help you,” Reyes said.

        “... When you're his friend, you're in his blood and his heart.”

Image isn't everything
        Rogers has heard plenty of people say how surprised they are after meeting Agassi.

        Take the 41-year-old Kroll, for instance. He was hired as Agassi's tennis director about a year and a half ago.

        “When you see Andre on TV, you kind of look at him as untouchable because of the image they've built around him,” Kroll said. “But when he comes out to the club, he's just a regular guy. The first time I met him, I felt like I had known him for years.”

        Much of the public perception comes from the Canon commercial.

        “Image is everything,” Agassi told us.

        Truth is, he couldn't disagree more.

        “I think that phrase itself wasn't reflective of who I was, even then,” Agassi said. “It's sad to say, even in saying the line and filming the campaign, it never quite occurred to me what was being said or expressed. Some lessons you have to learn a tough way. That certainly was one of them.”

"Repaid by a smile'
        Everyone raves about how Agassi connects with children. For this, he offers no explanation other than to say, “I find it more surprising that somebody couldn't.”

        “You can be repaid by a smile,” Agassi said.Agassi's camp admits it doesn't do a great job publicizing all the charitable deeds he does, but then again, that's not why Agassi does it.

        “He would give you the shirt off his back, and he doesn't want to be glorified for it,” friend and coach Brad Gilbert said. “He's trying to change people's lives. He's just doing the things that are really important to him.”

        Here is a man who has won 45 career titles and six Grand Slams. Here is a man who has given back to his community in a way few athletes even consider.

        Of which accomplishment is he most proud?

        “They're all spokes of a wheel,” Agassi said. “They're all parts of who it is that I am in one facet or another. You're talking about somebody's work and somebody's passion. You want both to be successful. I have exceeded my own expectations in regards to my career, and I never thought the foundation would be as successful as it is.

        “If I had to give up the foundation or give up my career, I couldn't choose to give up the foundation because I couldn't make that decision; it affects too many people. So one has more importance, but the tennis is a priority. Tennis has given me the platform to make the foundation happen.”

       



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