Only in America?


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.

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Mike Agassi lived his life in America with the same heart and passion that he lost that fight, except that no one was keeping score save for himself and his family and if I were to ask them, I’ll bet they’d say he was a world champion husband, father and friend and, by the way, that’s all that matters to Mike. He won’t respond to queries about the hard, bad or down times of his life unless you’re as persevering and persistent as he had to be in order to succeed; he won’t brag about the triumphs, either, because he doesn’t have the time for it. Those were yesterday’s events; at 80, he is working on tomorrow’s, except when he stops occasionally to catch his breath.

Four years ago, the family went nuts because he climbed about 60 feet on a 75-foot-ladder to trim branches on one of the palm trees lining the perimeter of the regulation tennis court alongside his house that he designed and whose construction he supervised. He also invented many of the requirements necessary to keep it perfectly level, a drainage system to optimize the drying after a rainfall, and an ingeniously simple device to prevent birds from leaving droppings on the surface of the court, among other innovations. (He feeds the birds regularly out of simple kindness, not as a bribe to prevent the inevitable consequence of eating.)

The guy has led a successful, adventurous, productive, relatively anonymous, unglamorous life. That’s not easy, either, but he pulled it off, anyway. In America, it’s important to be successful because nowhere else is success rewarded so disproportionately or striving-but-failing so unappreciated. No one knows or cares who came in second, because they lost in the finals. The conundrum is, what is success? For Mike Agassi, it was to give his children the tools to achieve and succeed, to live and perform to the utmost of their ability and capability.

It’s what all of us want for our children but not many of us are willing to suffer the personal sacrifice necessary to achieve that goal. Maybe it requires aggressive-compulsive behavior. Whatever it took, he had it. When Andre and his siblings ran out of the requisite competition locally to constantly improve their game, their father would drive them to Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, hundreds of miles away, to compete against the best in their age categories and above. The kids loved and enjoyed it; Mike Agassi didn’t force it on them. He worked as many as three jobs a day to pay for the gas, the equipment and the car repairs. Mike’s devotion wasn’t what you’d call “exemplary.” If that’s all he had given, the kids wouldn’t have gotten where he wanted them to go. How did he do? What’s the measure of his success? Guess, but check out the children’s life histories before you decide. You’d be interested to see how well-adjusted and accomplished they are. I’ve mentioned the names of three of the kids so, just for fairness and balance, let me also mention Tami, chronologically the third child, because she’s the one who maintains fairness and balance in the family. When Mike Agassi or anyone else in the family gets out of line and none of the other members can reason with the wayward one, Tami does it, because no one says no to Tami.

I asked Mike about another non-celebrity, his wife, Betty, whom he met in June 1959 and married in August. (I’ll do the math for you; two months. Now, it’s 51 years later.) When I asked about her, he was constrained by his pigeon English, which happens to be the weakest language for him out of the five he speaks. Mike’s passionate and emotional, about everything, but particularly his family. Simple people usually are, and he’s a simple guy. He speaks from the heart and the route from the heart to the tongue isn’t complicated by nuance or innuendo or other contrived interference, as is the route from the brain to the tongue. It’s direct, clear and unconditional. In his eagerness and excitement to tell me about her, he stammered and struggled momentarily to find the words and I sensed he felt inadequate to express what he felt. The word he used was, “wonderful.” I think, if “World Champion” had occurred to him, he would have mouthed the words, but I’m guessing she may never have held a tennis racket in her hands in her life so the term in this context didn’t occur to him.  All the work she’s done has been outside the white lines.

A lot has been written about Mike Aggasi’s youngest child, Andre, even a book by the young man himself, and there has been a considerable amount of misunderstanding about the family’s dynamics. While reading lines of writing we, each of us, interprets the words in his own personal way, reading between the lines in the context of our own personal lives and prisms, not those of the principals, and nuance and innuendo can alter the perception. I know what Andre wrote about his father in his book; I saw the interview of Andre Agassi on “60 Minutes.” I’m telling you  this: there is at least every bit as much love and respect and trust among all the members of  the Agassi family, and happiness, as there is in yours and mine. The tough, simple guy did it. It was a lifetime of hard, intensive work and long hours, but it was a labor of love and it paid off. He isn’t a thoroughbred in his bloodline, but if you’re assessing character and dignity, he’s 100 percent.

Leo Durocher once said of a managerial rival, Bill Terry, “Nice guys finish last.” No disrespect to his knowledge of baseball, but for sure it’s not always true of tennis or of life. Sometimes nice guys finish “top of the world,” and so do their children. At least, it works that way sometimes in America.

(Frank Nahigian of Belmont, Mass. is a regular contributor to Armenian newspapers.)

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