It was the summer of 1962, and Dad faced a dilemma. A few years
earlier, unable to speak a word of English, he had come to
America from his native Iran. He headed west where the weather
was conducive to playing tennis, a sport he loved. He settled in
Las Vegas and got a job working in the restaurant of the
Landmark, one of the biggest casinos in town at the time. Every
week he socked away a few bucks from his tips, and eventually he
had $500 to invest. ¬∂ His first plan was to put the money into
real estate. He was preparing to buy an acre in a commercial zone
when he crossed paths with a tennis equipment salesman. The man
was peddling an enormous contraption that would spit tennis balls
across the net. He advertised it as "the first-ever ball
Dad was seduced. "How much?" he asked.
"Five hundred bucks."
So there it was, Dad's version of "The Lady or the Tiger?" The
land or the tennis gadget? Dad wrestled with it for a few days
and finally called the salesman. "I'll take it," he said.
The story doesn't end there. In the early 1970s, Dad was working
at the MGM Grand. One day, as he walked past the Tropicana, he
noticed that the hotel's two asphalt tennis courts were in bad
condition. He found the manager and made a proposition: "I'll
take care of the tennis facilities and give lessons on one court
if my kids can hit on the other." Deal. So every day Dad loaded
that heavy ball machine onto our truck, along with a trash can
filled with old balls, and drove down to the Tropicana.
My brother, my two sisters and I spent countless hours practicing
on those courts. Eventually Dad's first-edition ball machine
became obsolete, and he replaced it with a newer one. Meanwhile,
he was sowing the seeds of my love affair with tennis. On my
fourth birthday, he arranged for me to hit balls with Jimmy
Connors. A few months later, using a red Garcia wooden racket
that was nearly as tall as I was, I rallied with Bjorn Borg at
the Alan King Classic at Caesars.
Years later Dad told the ball-machine story to a friend. It turns
out that the acre of land he had planned to buy is now prime real
estate on the Strip. "Mike," the friend asked, "can you imagine
what that land would be worth today?"
Dad smiled. He said, "I think I got a pretty good return on that
To me, that captures the essence of Las Vegas and Nevada. Here
you're encouraged, literally and figuratively, to roll the dice.
There's a real entrepreneurial spirit. If you believe in
something, you can achieve it.
It was this same think-big mentality that helped me conceive the
Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy five years ago. The goal
was to give back to a region that gave me so much. My agent and I
thought the best way was to build a charter school in a pocket of
Las Vegas where the lights don't shine so brightly. I wanted to
give kids access to a nurturing school environment, to
technology, to hope and optimism. When we announced our ambitious
plan, no one batted an eye. When we learned that we needed to
raise a $35 million endowment for the school to run in
perpetuity, no one suggested we dial it back.
Today 250 kids attend the school, which goes from grade three
through seven, and that number will double by the end of the
decade. Kids who were two grades behind have caught up to their
grade levels. Teachers from all over the country apply to teach
at the school. I've been humbled by how much support we've gotten
from the community.
When people ask me how I persuaded my wife, Steffi Graf, to move
to Nevada, I often say, "Steffi loves me very much." But the
truth is, it wasn't hard at all. There's a real community here, a
real sense of place, a real soul. She loves it--so much so that
her mom moved here as well. As for my dad? He still lives here.
He's now in his 70s and still plays tennis every day. When he
can't get a game, he practices with a ball machine.
People say that nothing grows in the desert. When you put down
roots here, you know differently.
Las Vegas native and resident Andre Agassi has won 58 pro singles
titles and is, at age 34, ranked No. 6 in the world.