My path first crossed with Justice John Paul Stevens over 20 years ago. Not through the highest court of laws but the courts of tennis. I was a tennis player and a writer, as I am today. But back then I didn’t know at first that he was a lifelong player and still relieved tension by smacking around tennis balls. Now that he is gone at 99, my memories are more alive than ever.
In 1999, I signed on as tennis shop manager at a northern Virginia country club. On my first day two men approached the desk.
“I’m Justice Stevens,” the taller man said, giggling. “Do you have a court for us to play on?” Behind him was the real, and much shorter, Justice Stevens. He waved his arms, alerting me to the ruse. We laughed, but, honestly, I didn’t recognize Justice Stevens. Things changed from there on out.
I soon learned that Justice Stevens was an honorary member at the golf and tennis club outside Washington D.C., as had been Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Most Tuesdays before 8 a.m. Justice Stevens played singles. There was no fanfare when he arrived, no limo that dropped him off, and he didn’t wear fashionable outfits. In fact, he tended to wear the same navy shorts, a white, sometimes wrinkled, polo shirt, and Tretorn tennis shoes, which were the favorite of Bjorn Borg in his day: canvas tops and smooth soles. A couple times he wanted me to get him a pair, but they were hard to come by so he switched brands, asking me if he’d done a good job in choosing them. I assured him he had.
One day he walked in wearing a bright red Washington Nationals jacket that had his name embroidered on the back, in cursive. It made him seem youthful.
“That’s an awesome jacket,” I said, as he walked past me a bit knock-kneed.
“They gave it to me at the game,” he said, smiling. But make no mistake, he was a stalwart Chicago Cubs fan, having hailed from that city. He had lived through most of the team’s century-old drought of losses, and even threw out the first pitch at Wrigley Field in 2005.
I worked at this golf and tennis club for close to 18 years and as the years passed Justice Stevens and I became friends. During the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision in 2000 I went straight to the Justice with a question.
“Why is this decision so difficult? What’s going on?”, I asked, as he came in to play one morning.
He looked me straight in the eye, saying, “It’s complicated,” and turned quickly to go play tennis on what seemed his preferred court that morning.
People were astonished. “You asked him that?”, a journalist friend said. Who else would I ask, I thought.
When Justice Stevens suggested I be his guest during a deliberation at the Supreme Court I about burst. I’d never been inside the Court and wasn’t prepared for its grandeur. I gaped as I found my seat, which was identified by a bronze plaque engraved with his name. At exactly 9 a.m. each justice appeared from behind red velvet curtains before taking their assigned seats. As soon as Justice Stevens settled, he found me with his eyes and nodded with a smile.
The next time we met at the club, I thanked him for the invitation, adding, “When the curtains opened and you walked out it was almost like a magic show was about to start.”
He tilted his head back and laughed. “It is a magic show,” he said.
Over these years I’d been developing my own tennis journalistic skills, along with my website DownTheTee.com. I was also writing for other tennis sites. I pitched a story to a site about Justice Stevens, along with other tennis celebrities in the D.C. area.
At the end of the interview he said that I was the best director of tennis, which I wasn’t… but I couldn’t bear to correct him because he was itching to play tennis and he was so sincere in his compliment.
Later I asked him if he’d read the story, as he arrived one morning to play.
“You spelled my name wrong,” he said, walking to the desk at a faster click than usual.
My stomach tensed and my face turned red.
“I’m sorry. I’ll correct it,” I said, a bit perturbed that the web site editor hadn’t caught the error.
After I left that job a few years ago, I received a letter from Justice Stevens written on Supreme Court letterhead to congratulate me on “my retirement,” which it wasn’t but, again, I couldn’t correct him.
Here’s what I did do. I wrote back to him, pointing out that he’d misspelled my name as “Voight” instead of “Voigt.”
“We’re even,” I added.
I never saw him again, and learned of his passing while visiting friends outside Chicago. I couldn’t have been in a better place to hear the sad news.