Former Badgers coach subject of new book

Former Badgers coach subject of new book

In his globetrotting career as a basketball coach and tennis player, Madison’s John Powless has always remembered to thank the flight crews.

On long airplane trips, Powless—the former Badgers basketball coach, and currently the top-ranked tennis player in the world older than 80—passes out tennis ball key chains to the pilots and flight attendants.

On one December flight in the early 1990s, a crewmember smiled and said, “You’re kind of like Santa Claus.” Before the plane touched down, an offer was made for Powless to play Santa at the airline’s annual Christmas charity event for orphaned children. The regular Santa had cancelled.

The crewmembers dressed as elves. Powless was made up as Santa, and a heavily costumed woman played Mrs. Claus. The kids were thrilled, and Powless couldn’t hold his tears.

A reception followed. Powless made contact with an attractive woman, then felt his jaw drop. Could it be?

“Yes, I am,” the woman said, smiling.

It was Princess Diana. “Santa,” she said, “I am Mrs. Claus.”

John Powless, 83, spins a story better than a second serve, or so it seemed to Dan Smith, a longtime Madison media personality—TV host, documentary producer, writer—who got the peripatetic Powless to sit still long enough to get the best stories on tape.

The result is a new book, written by Smith, titled John Powless: A Life Well Played, that takes Powless from his upbringing on the southern Illinois prairie—a small town called Flora—to the most glamorous grass courts in international tennis. (I will be interviewing Smith and Powless at a launch event for the new book at 7 p.m. on March 3 at Mystery to Me on Monroe Street.)

Powless played both tennis and basketball growing up, and the sports became the anchors of his adult life. He earned a living coaching basketball—including serving as an assistant on national championship teams at the University of Cincinnati — but he played tennis, too, in an era when there wasn’t much money in the sport.

The experiences were priceless. As a coach of the United States Junior Davis Cup team, Powless tutored a young Arthur Ashe, and they became friends. Powless recognized something special in Ashe, who embraced civil rights along with excelling on the tennis court, prior to his death at 49.

“He never questioned a call,” Powless says in the new book. “He never raised his voice or threw his racquet. His intellect became his greatest asset. He was hardly the strongest player of his day, but he was head and shoulders the best.”

Powless was the head men’s basketball coach of the Badgers form 1968-1976. Later, he became a color commentator on television broadcasts of the games. It was in that role that he got to know Dan Smith, who was producing the telecasts.

In airport layovers at away games, Powless shared stories from his extraordinary journey. It wasn’t name-dropping—it was his life.

Once, when then-Vice President George H. W. Bush needed a doubles partner for a match against two large campaign donors, he called Powless. They won 11 straight games, and were about to end the match when Powless quietly asked if it might not be wise to let the donors win one game. “Screw them,” the fiercely competitive Bush said. “I can’t help it if they can’t play.”

At a time when many people are content to sit by a fire and reflect, Powless—who operates the John Powless Tennis Center in Madison—pushed himself to became perhaps the greatest senior tennis player ever. He has won titles from Australia to South America. The Professional Tennis Registry recently named him the Senior Player of the Millennium.

It has been quite a ride. I remember Powless once telling me that as a young tennis player he would look at the guys in the senior division and think, “I’ll probably never live that long.”

He lived, and he triumphed.