By Frank Nahigian
LAS VEGAS — My reasons for interviewing Emmanuel Aghassian, or Mike Agassi as he is better known, were that both his parents were Armenian and his son, Andre, is a celebrity who has a celebrity wife Steffi Graf, whom Mike loves, has a celebrity ex-wife, Brooke Shields and he won’t even be 40 till the week after the April 24 commemoration. Andre Agassi won eight Grand Slams; Steffi Graf won 22, but I didn’t dare ask Mike, “Who wears the pants in that family?”
Andre Agassi has established a philanthropic foundation that has raised millions for the purpose of educating underprivileged children and set up a charter school pilot project. Last year it graduated 35 kids and every one of them was admitted into college. He hopes and expects to expand the program substantially. It’s not a tennis school, it’s an academic school, designed to help the kids make successes of their lives. But this story is about Mike Agassi, not his son.
This’ll tell you something about Mike: one of the first things he told me was that he was “only” 97 percent Armenian, because one or two of his ancestors had married non-Armenians. I think he told me that out of an innate sense of honesty; he wanted me to know the truth so that he wouldn’t feel party to a deception. I was impressed and amused by his honesty.
Mike Agassi grew up in a 300-square-foot room in Tehran, in which he lived with both parents, three brothers and a sister, eating meals on a dirt floor and sharing a common bathroom with 28 other relatives, friends and strangers who lived in the same one-story structure which I’m reluctant to call a building. One would learn some life skills such as team work, making do and getting along, wouldn’t you say?
He came to America and started out by joining one of his brothers in Chicago in 1952 at age 21 and moved to Las Vegas in 1962 with a wife, a 3-year-old daughter, Rita, an eight-day-old son, Philip, a job promise on the horizon and the American dream in his head. He, himself, might have been a celebrity in Iran if he had won an Olympics boxing championship in the featherweight class during the games in 1948 and 1952. However, the scoring rewarded technical proficiency and boxing skills rather than storming your adversary with the heart and passion of an unschooled brawler intent on battering his opponent into submission. Things did not get easier, as eight years later, he drove from Chicago to Las Vegas in a Chevy Impala with a repaired engine block loaded with his family and all his worldly possessions — his was certainly no charmed life.