Friday, July 8, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
Beyond the Sun
Andre Agassi was preparing to face longtime tennis rival and friend Pete Sampras in February during an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden in New York.
But before he took to the court, the Las Vegas native had a phone call to make. He surprised the basketball players at the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy — the tuition-free public charter school he founded in 2001 on West Lake Mead Boulevard in one of Southern Nevada’s most at-risk neighborhoods — by contacting them in the locker room at the Orleans Arena before their Nevada state championship game against Incline High School of Northern Nevada.
Agassi’s pregame talk worked wonders.
Not only did Agassi Prep capture the school’s first championship in any sport, the team beat Incline by nearly 40 points, 89-50.
The players, completely surprised by the call, were inspired by Agassi’s gesture and words.
“It definitely pumped us up for the game,” said Agassi Prep rising senior Kalinn Jackson, who scored a game-high 24 points in the win. “He pretty much told us that we had to put everything on the line in order to come out of the game with success. He reminded us to play hard and to not have any fear coming into the game.”
Agassi, after all, knows a thing or two about excelling on the big stage. An eight-time Grand Slam winner and Olympic gold medalist, Agassi will be honored Saturday for his tennis achievements by being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I.
Trophies and other awards Agassi won during his career are so numerous it would be hard to count. He went 870-274 with 60 tournament titles, including four Australian Open, two U.S. Open, and one French Open and Wimbledon.
But a recent addition to the collection carries similar significance to him. He was awarded a state ring for Agassi Prep’s championship basketball season. Talk with players, coaches and school officials, and they will confirm Agassi was a valuable part of the team.
Agassi said he talked about cherishing the moment, playing with confidence and, above all else, enjoying themselves.
“You try to remind them that it’s just another game and to not play with fear,” Agassi said. “But it is OK to have that fear and to be nervous. That means you care about what you are doing and the game is important.”
Agassi had that same excited-nervous attitude before tennis matches — no matter the significance. The exhibition against Sampras, for instance, was played in front of 19,000 fans, giving the two stars a chance for another memorable night together on the court.
Some of his fondest memories nowadays come from watching a child achieve at Agassi Prep.
Agassi, 41, is devoting his life to charter schools and helping the less fortunate, with his call before the important basketball game a small sample of the effect he is making with underprivileged children. Agassi is active at the school, which houses at-risk children grades K-12, and is known to make frequent visits to classrooms.
And when he talks, the children listen.
“Where we go to school, it’s not really that good of an area,” Jackson said. “He’s just a great guy. He is giving unfortunate kids a chance to do big things.”
Although a basketball championship isn’t as important as a high test score or other classroom achievement, Agassi said the title gives the children confidence they can accomplish goals. It also helped spike tremendous school spirit.
When the tennis hall selected Agassi for the summer induction, he had the news conference to announce the honor at his school. Instead of celebrating his tennis career, he used the opportunity to showcase the school’s students. There was a performance from the band and dance team, and students received a chance to practice their public speaking.
A majority of the students don’t know Agassi as a world tennis icon. Jackson, for instance, had to watch YouTube.com clips of Agassi to find out who he is.
Agassi plans to develop 75 schools serving 40,000 students throughout the nation over the next three or four years. Using the Southern Nevada school as a model, he intends to continue giving at-risk youth a better education option. “It’s costs three times more (for the government) to house someone who is incarcerated than it is to educate a child,” he said.
And maybe pick up a few more championship rings along the way — even though he doesn’t wear the one from this basketball season.
“It’s a little too gaudy for me,” Agassi joked. “But it’s very special and displayed prominently” at his house.