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July 9, 2013 03:09 PM
Seanmug,jpg_(2)As a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal, I attended my first Governor’s Cup Middle School Tennis Tournament in October 2008. The event took place at several venues across Albuquerque.  In search of a human interest story, I went to all the sites but couldn’t find anything to write about.
The coaches were nice when I explained my mission, but then I would generally get a response such as, “Oh, all these kids are really great.”
When I stopped at the Jerry Cline Center for a second time, I happened to meet up with Sean Hopkins, who was coaching Cleveland Middle School’s team. I knew Sean from the tennis scene; you couldn’t miss him. He was a go-go-go type of guy. I would get tired simply watching him hurrying about, telling kids what to do, praising them, getting excited for them, laughing with them, always laughing.
When Sean slowed down, I told him what I wanted. Sean thought about my request for a few moments but then took off to congratulate one of his kids who had just finished a match.  Casually, over his shoulder, Sean called, “Hey, one of my players was homeless.”
The boy had played tennis at Cleveland for three years, Sean said. All that time he had lived in a van with two brothers and his grandmother. 
“Before he came to middle school, he hadn’t picked up a tennis racket,” Sean went on. “Never once did he tell me about his situation, never once did he complain.” Sean let loose a loud laugh.  “He was too busy playing tennis.”
Late in June when I learned Sean Hopkins had died suddenly of a heart attack at age 43, all I could think of was his generous nature, his boundless energy, his crooked smile, his thunderous laugh.
2007team_(2)Coincidentally, in the fall of 2011, I found myself coaching the Cleveland Middle School tennis team. I had never coached tennis before. When asked to do it, I thought, How difficult can it be?
Turns out it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Sean needed to take a break from coaching. He had coached at Cleveland for several seasons and he wanted to concentrate on work and his girlfriend, whom he would later marry. He agreed to come out and help me learn the ropes.
During one of his visits to a Cleveland practice, I told Sean that I had given one boy, a chronic cut-up who chased girls on the team into the bathroom, to stop acting up. I had leveled with the kid: “One more incident and you’re gone.”
Sean looked at me and with that cockeyed grin of his, and said, “Don’t give these kids the opportunity to fail.”
Instantly I knew what he meant.  Let kids find their own way without threats. When I backed off, the boy calmed down. He played that year and the following one.  
Another time, a Cleveland player, not much taller than her racket, asked me, “Can I serve this way?” She proceeded to hit a ball underhand.
I started to say, Yes, that it was OK to serve like that. Then Sean showed up.  “No, no,” he said. “No underhand serving. You need to learn to serve the right way from the beginning.” Then he demonstrated a simplified, two-step delivery: “Toss and hit, Toss and hit.”
This time, I jumped in. “But Sean, remember Michael Chang?” In a marathon final of the 1989 French Open men’s singles, Chang, overcome by heat and exhaustion, had hit underhand serves near the finish to defeat Ivan Lendl.
Sean let out a booming laugh. “Hey, these kids aren’t Michael Chang—yet.”

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