a real ace
Ken Hoffman's best memories of his legendary tennis partner President George H.W. Bush
Mr. President, would you take a photo with my little boy?
“Absolutely, bring him over here,” former President George H.W. Bush said. “You need any help? You okay?”
Earlier that morning, I had played a doubles match at a charity event at Lakeside Country Club in Houston. It was Indian tennis great Vijay Amritraj and me against Chris Evert and Chuck Norris at Norris’ "Kick Drugs Out of America" fundraiser in 1999.
During the match, I heard a rumble go through the crowd. President Bush and his wife, Barbara, were being seated in the first row. They had brought Ranger the dog with them. Millie, their best-selling author dog, had passed on, and Ranger was their new pooch.
It was one of those moments when I wanted to call timeout and phone everybody I’ve ever known and tell them, "I can’t talk now, I’m playing tennis against Chuck Norris and Chris Evert. And President Bush is in the front row. Gotta go."
With the score tied, 3-3, Chris Evert was serving. She had been mocking me the whole match for staying behind the baseline and refusing to come to the net. She was wearing a microphone, and the crowd was enjoying her ridiculing me. “C’mon Miss Hoffman, get your butt to the net like a man!” After being the “Ice Maiden” her whole career, suddenly she was Shecky Evert. Amritraj, my partner, a Wimbledon doubles champion, ordered me to move forward.
I should have stuck to my guns, stuck behind the baseline. As Evert went into her service motion, Amritraj warned me to “stay alive up there.” I didn’t hear him clearly and turned my head to say, “Huh?”
Evert served as hard as she could and the ball hit me right in … how should I say this? How about my crotch area?
Guys, you know how that feels. I crumbled to both knees. I couldn’t breathe. The crowd exploded in laughter. I was in pain, the wind knocked out of me. I was embarrassed or humiliated, whichever one is worse. I noticed Evert running toward me. I swear there were tears in her eyes. She was laughing that hard. “Are you going to write about this?” Evert said.
I felt someone help me up from behind. The person said, “If you do, say ‘groin,’ it sounds nicer.”
It was former President Bush. I said, in a weak, high pitched gasp, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. President.”
After I was taken to the first aid tent, I limped back to the tennis court and played another match, this time with President Bush as my doubles partner. After the match, I asked President Bush to take a photo with my son, Andrew, who was 3 years old.
Andrew is a Gladney Center kid. President Bush was a Gladney grandparent.
Andrew sat next to the former leader of the free world, and I took a photo. I used a $4.99 disposable camera from Walgreen’s. I took the film to the pharmacy to be developed that day. I’m not a photo ace. There have been times when I’ve heard, “Sorry, none of your photos came out. No charge.”
Please, not this time.
The photo could not have been more perfect. It’s President Bush, holding a camera and his tennis racket in one hand, my boy with the other. Best photo I’ve ever taken — sweetest photo anybody’s ever taken.
The next day, I called President Bush’s office on Memorial Drive. I told his secretary, “I don’t know if President Bush signs autographs, but I took a picture of him with my son yesterday. Tell him I’m the guy who got hit in the groin by Chris Evert. He’ll know who I am.” She said, “I’ll ask him. Bring the photos by.”
The next day, my phone rang. It was President Bush’s secretary. “Mr. Bush has signed your photo and he would like you to come by and get them. Can you come over now?”
What’s the speed limit on Memorial?
Ken, meet 41
I was given the once over by the Secret Service and walked into President Bush’s outer office. His secretary said, “He’s waiting for you. Just go inside.” President Bush motioned for me to sit down. He asked, “How are you feeling?” He was laughing, too. I was happy that my pain brought such joy to the president and Chris Evert.
“I’m fine, thank you for asking.”
President Bush said that he enjoyed my newspaper column. Wait, a former president of the United States reads my column? Then he said that Mrs. Bush reads my column in the morning, too. Is this a hidden camera show and the president is pranking me?
Mr. Bush handed me the photo with my son. He wrote on it, “To Andrew Hoffman, have a wonderful life, big guy — love, George Bush.”
Wow! He wrote “love!” He called my baby “big guy! He also autographed another photo, one of him and me after our doubles match. He wrote, “Thanks for carrying a heavy load.”
The 41st president of the United States and I talked for about 45 minutes. I told him that I was at the Berlin Wall the day it came down. He was president at the time. We talked about other events during his presidency. After a while, he gave me a tour of his office. We walked into a small snack room where two young women were talking over coffee. He introduced them as his “interns.”
I asked, “Do you think it’s a good idea to say ‘interns'? You might want to use a different word.” This was only a couple of years after President Clinton’s scandal with his intern Monica Lewinsky.
From the White House to blue humor
President Bush laughed and said, “I still call them interns. We’re close … but no cigar.”
Great line! The president works blue! As the president said goodbye, he reached in his desk drawer. He said, “I wrote a note to you." (Twitter hadn't been invented yet.) I acted cool and put the note in my pocket. The moment the elevator door closed, I tore open the envelope. The note read:
Chrissie seemed pleased that she drilled you. I sent her your column. Here are the photos.
Sincerely, George Bush.
Netting a lasting relationship
President Bush and I played doubles together a few more times. We developed a comedy act where he would yell for me to race all the way to his side to hit a ball that was clearly his. He was developing a bad hip by this time and couldn’t move very well.
If I made the shot, he’d high-five me. If I didn’t, let’s just say, he voiced his good-natured disappointment at me. Before each match, he'd say let's have fun, but let's win. One time, I missed an overhead and the ball floated gently back to his son Neil, who promptly slammed it at the president’s feet for a winner. The president zinged me good for that one.
In 2016, the Houston Chronicle started a new magazine feature where we profiled a famous Houstonian each issue. I said, let me give it a shot, I’ll ask former President Bush. I contacted his press person, Jim McGrath, who’s my neighbor. McGrath said, “I’ll ask him.”
The president was 92 then, and he was laying low, not giving interviews. It was an election year, and he was staying out of it. Plus his health was deteriorating. McGrath said the president remembered me, the guy who got hit in the “groin” by Chris Evert. Mr. Bush said, Okay, let’s do it.
It turned out to be the next to last interview the president ever gave. The only one that followed me was with an author writing a biography about Barbara Bush. I’ll bet my interview was funnier, though, plus a surprise ending.
How a smart man answers a silly question
I asked him 10 questions about his life in Houston. They were softballs, like, how did it happen that you came to Houston in the '50s? Why did you decide to stay here after your presidency? What are your favorite restaurants? What do you consider Houston’s challenges in the future? How long did it take a northern guy like you to adjust to life in Houston?
The last question was, “Do you consider yourself a Houstonian now?”
President Bush zinged me again: “I don’t want to be less than kind and gentle, Ken, but that’s a dumb question.”