I was conflicted about my column topic the week the Super Bowl is coming to our town.
I wanted to write about that, of course. We have been building for this moment ever since a bunch of visionaries from more than 30 years ago embarked on a Naptown-no-more strategy and set about to make it happen.
The Super Bowl represents the latest—and many would say greatest—result of that strategy.
But then I got a telephone call from a daughter who told me her father had died. The daughter’s name is Jackie MacKenzie. Her father is Stan Malless, also known as Indianapolis’ “Mr. Tennis.”
Stan was 97 when he passed. His name long ago slipped from the newspapers and local broadcasts. His monument—both to his willpower and to his city—was the Indianapolis Tennis Center.
Sadly, it died before he did, and I have to feel Stan felt the blow when the first wrecking ball crashed into his tennis palace.
So I wanted to write about Stan, too.
On the surface, one doesn’t have much to do with the other: the Super Bowl and Stan Malless.
But on second thought, they have everything to do with each other.
Indianapolis, you see, is hosting the Super Bowl because a lot of people dared to dream, wouldn’t accept “no” for an answer, persuasively marshaled resources, and never saw a hurdle that couldn’t be cleared.
And that also was Stan Malless. In fact, he was ahead of the curve.
Long before Indy was anything much more than the Indianapolis 500, Malless set on a course to make the city’s mark in tennis.
He wooed the U.S. Clay Court Championships from Chicago to Indianapolis, where they were played in the cozy—but totally inadequate—confines of the Woodstock Club. Suddenly, the likes of Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and a couple of youngsters (who briefly expanded the tennis term of “love”) named Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors were sliding about on our clay.
As the tournament grew, Malless—who also became president of the U.S. Tennis Association—moved it to the Indianapolis Racquet Club on the city’s northeast side. Finally, capitalizing on the building of Market Square Arena in 1974 and then Mayor Richard Lugar’s impetus to revitalize downtown, Malless spearheaded construction of the Indianapolis Sports (later Tennis) Center on the campus of IUPUI in 1979.
I covered the first Clay Courts there. There was a grain elevator just to the south. The nearby canal was an eyesore. The city skyline to the east was not impressive. There was no natatorium or track close by and the IUPUI campus was still fairly non-descript. Yet I remember thinking, “This could be pretty cool.”
Then tennis boomed in the 1980s, and Stan’s tournament rode the echo. It was a summertime must-see. Malless even brought a round of Davis Cup play to the city.
But then, both gradually and all at once it seemed, the heydays were over. Hindered by bad dates and the world tennis calendar, the U.S. Clay Courts left and, with them, so did women’s tennis. Indy kept tennis here thanks to the U.S. Hardcourts and the RCA Championships, but the calendar got in the way again and more bad dates and poor fields took away the sport’s local luster. The tournament died, then IUPUI bulldozed the tennis center, deeming the space more suitable for other things.
So those were the days, my friend. I had a front-row seat for most of them. I began covering tennis for the local daily in 1969 when I didn’t know Forest Hills from Forest Lawn. Malless didn’t care. He nurtured my knowledge and expanded my contacts.
So what does this have to do with the Super Bowl? Again, mostly everything.
Malless represented the can-do attitude that has become part of our culture. It’s a culture shared by the likes of Jim Morris, Ted Boehm, Dave Frick, Sandy Knapp and Mark Miles, and carried forward by folks like Jack Swarbrick and Dale Neuburger and now handed off to Allison Melangton and Miles again.
And I know I just omitted a hundred names that deserve mention. Sorry.
It has been about vision, risk-taking and getting-it-done. Here’s hoping the Super Bowl isn’t a finish line, but another springboard. Funny thing about momentum: You either seize it or lose it.
By the way, I drove over to the former Tennis Center site the other day. It’s a parking lot. There ought to be some kind of permanent recognition of Stan Malless there. Seems the least we can do.•
Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.