I interviewed Mike Agassi because both his parents were Armenian, and his son Andre is a celebrity who has a celebrity wife—Steffi Graf (you’ve heard of her)—whom Mike loves, and a celebrity ex-wife—Brooke Shields (you’ve heard of her, too). And he won’t even be 40 till the week after our April 24th commemorations. Andre won 8 Grand Slams. Steffi won 22. But I didn’t dare ask Mike, “Who wears the pants in that family?” (If she were married to Mike, he’d make her change her name to Graffian, even though an ancestor changed his from Agassian in order to disguise his nationality during a period of ethnic persecution). Andre has established a philanthropic foundation that’s raised millions toward the purpose of educating underprivileged children, and has 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, but an academic school, designed to help the kids make successes of their lives. But this story is about Mike, 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 (I was off my game, so startled by his “confession” that I was thinking about the idea of it rather than the substance) of his ancestors had married a non-Armenian. 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 grew up in a 300 sq. ft. room in Tehran, Iran, where lived with both Armenian 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 that 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 his wife, three-year-old daughter, Rita, 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 had he won an International Olympics boxing championship in the featherweight class during the games in 1948 and 1952—but for the Olympic system of scoring that 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. That doesn’t happen unless it’s a Hollywood movie or you live a charmed life. If eight years later you’re driving from Chicago to Las Vegas in a Chevy Impala with a repaired engine block loaded with family and all your worldly possessions, there hasn’t been a lot of “charm” in your life.
Mike lived his life in America with the same heart and passion that he lost that fight with, except that no one was keeping score apart from him and his family. If I were to ask them, I bet they’d say he was a World Champion husband, father, and friend—and, by the way, that’s all that matters to Mike. That’s the kind of guy he is. 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 years old, he’s working on tomorrow’s, except when he stops occasionally to catch his breath.
Eighty’s pretty old, but four years ago the family went nuts because he climbed about 60 ft. high on a 75-ft. 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, and 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, 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, Mike had it. When Andre and his siblings ran out of the requisite competition locally to constantly improve their game, Mike would drive them to Los Angeles or Salt Lake City, hundreds of mile distant, to compete against the best in their age categories and above. The kids loved and enjoyed it; Mike didn’t force it on them. Mike 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 (even though they’re only 48.5 percent Armenian). I’ve mentioned t
he names of three of his kids so, just for fairness and balance, let me also mention Tami, the chronologically third child, because she’s the one who maintains fairness and balance in the family. When Mike 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’ll bet you that if she hadn’t come along to teach Mike a thing or two, he wouldn’t have been able to handle Andre as well as he did. (In Las Vegas, you can make bets on anything.)
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. When
I asked about her, he was constrained by pigeon English, his worst of the five languages 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 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’s youngest child, even a book by the young man, and there’s a considerable amount of misunderstanding about their family dynamics. While reading lines of writing, 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 on “60 Minutes.” I’m telling you this: There’s 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 also a labor of love—and it paid off.
Mike 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.