For me, it’s always been New York.
The city … it’s just part of me. The fabric of New York — all of it, from the good to the bad and then back again — is inextricable from the fabric of my own life.
New York is my home. It’s as simple as that.
And now I’m back home to run the New York City Marathon. It’ll be my first time running a marathon, but it’s meaningful to me for a lot of different reasons.
Most of all, I’m running it for my dad, Thomas, who died of cancer 11 years ago. He will be with me every mile. When I’m tired along the way, I’ll think of him and remind myself of the awareness and money the James Blake Foundation is raising to fight cancer.
As I finish my training and plan for race day, it has become increasingly clear to me why the New York City Marathon is so special. For anyone who has ever called New York home, each of the race’s 26.2 miles tells a story.
Recently, my New York story added an unfortunate chapter.
But a chapter is just that: a chapter. My New York is full of them, and each has shaped me into the person I am today. For me, the Marathon represents both a tour of my city and a telling of my story.
Let’s go to the start.
Harlem is where I fell in love with tennis.
When I was seven, eight, nine years old, I learned how to play at the Harlem Juniors tennis program.
What was so special about Harlem Juniors is that everyone got to play for free. Entry only cost one thing: your report card. You just had to bring your report card in from school, and that was it. If you kept up a high enough GPA, then you could play for free.
They called the courts “The Armory.” My dad was a volunteer, and became one of the instructors there. He was someone who always, always, preached hard work. We would start every morning by running laps: upstairs … around the building (“the whole building”) … and then finally back down. I don’t remember exactly how many laps we would do; it was probably only three or four. At seven years old it seemed like 100.
But it’s something that has really stuck with me, all these years — the hard work that we did, each morning, out there at the Armory. I remember how good it would feel after. At the time, I couldn’t understand why. It was like, That was exhausting … why do I feel so good? But looking back now, I can see that that confusion was just me, at an early age, learning to understand the value of work ethic. The strong ethic that my dad preached to me became a part of my identity — and, in the best possible way, it became a part of my connection with New York.
On the hour-long drive back home, when it was just my dad, my brother and me, I’d always fall soundly asleep. I remember being so tired, and so content. I knew even then: New York can be a lot of work. But it’s worth it.
Central Park, that whole area, is where I fell in love with … well … probably the most essential component of New York life: Pizza.
After tennis, my dad and I, we’d always stop for pizza on the way home. For us, the more “New York” the pizza was, the better: big slices … paper plates … that little wax sheet … and, yeah, that price: one slice, one dollar. You couldn’t beat it.
Just like with anything else I would do with my dad, my first instinct was to try to be as much like him as possible. Dad, a pro’s pro, would eat his slice of pizza folded-style. And so I’d be sitting there, half his size, this little kid in tennis gear … taking this huge slice of pizza … and trying to fold it, angle it, negotiate it, just right, into my mouth.
But of course, I was too slow: the grease would drip, and drip, and drip — and pretty soon I’d have grease all over me … and not much pizza in my mouth to show for it. I’m telling you: It was amateur hour. Eventually I just had to admit defeat, and cut my losses, and transition to normal-style — which is how I eat my pizza to this day. (Since you asked: I’m a plain cheese guy.)
When we talk about looking up to our parents: It’s mostly the big things, right? Those major life principles — that end up shaping us, and guiding us, as we go on to become who we are as adults.
But sometimes, every now and then … it’s the little things as well.
And on those post-tennis afternoons of ours, as far as I was concerned: My dad ate the coolest-looking folded pizza in New York.
Flushing, Queens is where I fell in love with the Mets.
When I was six years old, in 1986, the Mets won the World Series.
It’s funny: As happy as I’m sure I was for them to win it (and, okay, yes: to get my bedtime postponed), my most lasting memory from ’86 is actually how happy my parents were about it. My mom, especially, had been a Mets fan since the ’60s. (You know how every parent has that one story they always tell, The time I met so-and-so? My mom’s “so-and-so” is Tom Seaver.) And so when the Mets — somehow, someway — beat the Red Sox in seven, my parents were like little kids.
I think that’s what struck me most about it: How completely pure the happiness was that sports brought them. When you’re younger, so much of your emotional understanding is really just loosely translated from the adult behavior around you. To see my parents acting like kids, to see them behaving like … me … there was something about it that just hit me in this thrilling, direct way. It was fun.
A lot of people loved Mookie, but my guy on that Mets team was Darryl Strawberry. With Darryl, there was this … majesty to his game. I mean, nowadays, a lot of athletes are big and physical. But it really is hard to explain just how larger-than-life Darryl seemed back then. With that huge, long frame, and that looping swing … when he hit home runs, they weren’t “pop-ups clearing the fence,” if you know what I mean. They were home runs. They were awe-inspiring. Darryl really was this god-like figure that year.
I actually got to take batting practice at Shea, the last season it was still standing. And I’ll be straight with you: I couldn’t hit one out. I came close … and I’ve hit balls out, taking BP, in some other parks (shout out Miami, shout out Houston). But at Shea — man. Warning track power. Let’s keep that between us.
And then of course, when Citi Field opened, my mom and I went. I loved Shea — it honestly did have its charms, I swear — but the upgrade to Citi Field was nice. Citi is classic and modern, all at once. It’s just a cool, refreshing fan experience. And it’s been especially cool recently. I hear the Mets are pretty good this year.
Flushing is also where I fell in love with the U.S. Open.
Which is to say: It’s where I came of age, on my own, as a professional athlete.
I remember my first wild card, in ’99, into the Open’s main draw: How there was this throng of people there for me, for me, for this unseeded nobody, for “the local boy.” How it was a total disaster, my worst-ever loss in a Grand Slam. How it was over so fast — so fast that I wondered whether I even deserved to be there, at all … whether I was maybe just “Challenger-good,” at that point, and not quite ready for the big boys. How I felt like I had let all of those people — who came out, just to see me — down.
How I vowed to never feel that way again.
I remember my first match on a show court, against Lleyton Hewitt: How, as a 21-year-old wild card, I had Lleyton — the No. 4 seed, who would go on to win the tournament — on the ropes.
How I was up two sets to one … until my body gave out to the heat. How I vomited, embarrassingly, in front of 15,000 people — and then lost the fifth set, 6-0.
How Lleyton was accused of making a racist comment about me during the match. How his alleged comment turned into a media firestorm. How suddenly people were talking about my parents’ interracial marriage, and my race, and me.
How I had to sit down for a press conference, after the match, and address the situation. How my dad pulled me aside — and said, Look, we know what’s going on here … we’ve got your back … we’re behind you 100-percent … we raised you right … and we trust you to say what you need to say.
How I did just that.
How, later on, I hashed things out with Lleyton in private. How I took the legacy of my idol, Arthur Ashe, very seriously. How I took my tennis seriously as well — and how the thought that most lingered with me, after that Open, wasn’t about Lleyton’s comment at all … but rather: that I should have won the match.
And I remember my back-to-back runs to the Quarterfinals, in 2005 and 2006: How it all came together for me — all of those early mornings, all of those long drives, all of that hard work — into the best results of my career, at my favorite tournament in the world. How those throngs of people who’d come to see me, to see the local boy, gained national recognition as I continued deeper into the draw. How they gained so much recognition, in fact, that they even got their own name: “The J-Block.”
How I ended up in a third-round match, on Arthur Ashe, against the No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal. How I told myself that there was no pressure, none whatsoever, and that I had nothing to lose. How that was a total lie. How my heart was beating through my chest, my nerves going haywire, when I realized, Oh my god … I could actually beat this guy. How I beat this guy. How I beat him, convincingly — in four sets, 6-1 in the fourth.
How I lost to Agassi, in the Quarterfinals, in one of the greatest U.S. Open matches in history. How it was exhilarating … and heartbreaking … all at once. How, whenever I’m back in town — on the subway, at the deli, crossing the street, in the park — strangers still, 10 years later, come up to me and talk about that match.
How there is nothing quite like being in the stadium you love, playing the game you love, in front of friends you love, in the city you love.
How there is nothing — and I mean nothing — quite like tennis in New York.
How there is nothing like New York.
Even the place you love can have its flaws. Even a beautiful city has pockets of ugliness. I experienced that last month when I was the victim of a violent interaction at the hands of an NYPD officer.
On a New York day like any other day, I was blindsided, tackled and dragged to the ground in broad daylight — all based on the way I look.
I’m still extremely angry about it.
But I’m not angry about the aches and scrapes I got — those have healed. I’m angry because I don’t want it to happen again to someone else. I’m frustrated that there isn’t a system of accountability in place: to prevent it from happening to my loved ones, or neighbors, or fellow New Yorkers.
The vast majority of NYPD officers are heroes who wear the badge with honor. They protect us. But there’s a small minority of police officers who carry a different shield: one of perceived invincibility. Those few individuals misuse their power, mistaking authority for impunity. Those officers are not the norm, but they make the majority look bad and they damage the relationship between communities and police.
There are so many stories like mine — but most people don’t have the platform I have.
I think to myself: If I weren’t “James Blake, pro tennis player,” would my story have even made the evening news? Would I have been invited to City Hall?
Would we still be talking about it?
Let’s be clear: my story got a lot of attention for two reasons. First, people know my name. Second, there was video documenting what happened. That’s it. In New York City each year there are more than 4,000 reported cases of excessive force involving a police officer and a citizen. Of these, how many are invited to City Hall to discuss it?
In the weeks following the incident, more people than I can count have called me, written me or even stopped me in the street to share their own versions of the time they were mistreated by the police. Many stories were worse than my own. Many incidents of police brutality are not captured on video camera. Many victims aren’t believed. Often times, there aren’t witnesses.
I respect that Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton invited me to meet with them. I came in with two main points: There should be consequences for the officer who mistreated me. And there should be a more transparent system of accountability for police officers who abuse their power.
A badge should not give an officer a blanket shield to do whatever they want. Without a system of accountability that the public can trust, what will change when another incident like mine happens?
The mayor and the police commissioner listened to me. They were very receptive, and promised they would follow up. I left the meeting thinking: We have plenty of work to do — but this is a solid start. They’re aware of the problem.
But awareness alone is not enough.
I understand that you can’t change something as big as a police department in a matter of days or weeks. However long it takes, though, I’m sticking with it. I owe it to anyone else who has gone through this. But also, I owe it to New York — which has been, by and large, nothing but good to me.
I consider it a challenge and a privilege to speak out on this issue. In recent weeks, I can’t even begin to tell you how many times someone in the city has come up to me and said, “On behalf of New Yorkers, I apologize.” I respond by telling them, “You don’t need to apologize. You’ve been great to me.”
One bad incident doesn’t spoil the city for me. I’ve had so many special memories in New York. I love New York.
And when you love something, you don’t let it go.
You make it better.
For more information on how to support James in the NYC Marathon and raise money for cancer research for the James Blake Foundation, visit www.crowdrise.com/jamesblakenyc.