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Uphill Career. When, Althea left for Wimbledon in May, only three close friends were at the airport to wish her luck. When she returned a winner, Idlewild was awash with people. Countless acquaintances suddenly remembered how they had helped her in the past, and crowded close to share her success. The big city, which had offered Althea's parents a cramped railroad flat in which to raise their children, honored her with a ticker-tape parade. And people breathlessly wanted to know how it had felt to shake hands with Queen Elizabeth at Wimbledon and what they had said to each other (The Queen: "It was a very enjoyable match, but you must have been very hot on the court." Althea: "I hope it wasn't as hot in the royal box.")
During a lunch given her by New York's Mayor Wagner at the Waldorf, Althea managed to make a speech. "God grant that I wear this crown I have won with dignity," she said. "I just can't describe the joy in my heart." But she was also learning the rough side of being on top. "No matter what accomplishments you make," she says, "somebody helps you. People saw me going up there, and now they want to ride on the wagon. Whenever I hear anyone call me 'Champ,' I think there's something behind it."
Though she is near the top of a remarkable uphill career, suspicion still often lowers over the champ's warm, infrequent smile. It is only half an hour by subway from Harlem to Forest Hills, and in many ways Althea is still close to home.
Fun, Fun, Fun. Althea Gibson was only one year old in 1928 when her parents decided that Manhattan's swarming West 143rd Street offered more opportunity than their cotton-poor farm in Silver, S.C. (in New York, her father went to work in a garage). The Gibsons' block between Lenox and Seventh Avenues was a play street, and in summer the white lines for paddle tennis and shuffleboard slid out over the baking asphalt to hold in the aimless kids. An instructor-supervisor sent up by the Police Athletic League divided his time as the situation demanded part coach and part friendly cop.
Althea's sister Millie (she has three sisters and a brother) recalls: "Althea was out in the street all the time. We used to have to drag her back into the house. When other girls were putting on lipstick, she was playing stickball. When she got a whipping, she never cried. She just stood there and took it." At P.S. 136, Althea was a chronic truant; she played hooky and played Softball with the boys in Central Park. She also played forward on a basketball team called "The Mysterious Five," which practiced at the 134th Street Boys Club and scheduled as many as four games a week with local industrial clubs. "I just wanted to play, play, play," says Althea. "My mother would send me out with money for bread, and I'd be out from morning to darkand not bring home the bread. I had fun, fun, fun!"