I hesitated to write on this topic, in part because it’s both personal and such a departure from my usual repertoire — politics, racial reckoning and general outrage at the societal vulgarity that feels so ascendant.
But I decided to anyway. My topic is friendship, and what feels to me — and I hope to you — like a time for a new appreciation of close friends as we emerge from our year-plus of strain and separation.
I suspect many of you have connected with friends in ways that might not have happened absent a pandemic, that the loss of serendipitous encounters in everyday life has made your close friendships even more precious.
For me, such a connection has been with four high school buddies from Rockford, Illinois. For half a century, we have been part of one another’s lives, first every day as schoolmates, and later through college, weddings, children, job changes, family funerals, health concerns, pretty much the gamut of life’s ups and downs.
When the five of us convened on Zoom last fall, we realized that while we had stayed close individually, we had not all been together in 40 years. As the pandemic recedes, we’ll keep that up.
But my focus today is another friend, a celebrity by any Madison standard, whose recent death generated big coverage across local media. In newspaper parlance, news of his death was played “above the fold” on the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal.
John Powless was head coach of the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team for eight seasons until 1976 and later became one of the best — quite often, the best — senior tennis player in the world. He was number one in his age group as recently as 2018.
John was an incredible athlete, but an even better friend.
I’m writing about him now because he did the rarest thing possible in any friendship — he changed what I value. Think about how that might apply across your friendships, about people whose company you not only enjoy, but who influence how you think and act.
For me, though he was more than two decades older, John was one of those people. We met about 40 years ago when, as a rookie news reporter, I was writing a story about my favorite hobby, tennis. John was head tennis pro at Cherokee Country Club at the time after resigning under pressure as basketball coach before I got to town.
Soon after, he bought the west side tennis club where I was a member and renamed it the John Powless Tennis Center. When not competing in Argentina or Croatia or Australia, he spent the rest of his life there, on court or in his modest office that in later years was decorated with the art projects and pictures of his many grandchildren.
All year round, he would be there some part of every day, seven days a week, often unlocking the front door before dawn.
Since his death, those who knew John have shared stories about how gracious and welcoming he was with everyone. Through the years, they and I saw him playfully engage with countless shy youngsters or warmly greet guests and new members.
Put simply, he had that rare ability to make everyone feel better, to feel valued. As if from another time, one long before email, John liked to mail thank-you cards in his graceful cursive for the slightest gesture of kindness.
Through the years, we grew increasingly close, eventually playing tennis together two or three times most weeks. During summers, he would set up a temporary grass court and invite friends like me and others to help prepare him for the grass-court tournaments that best suited his long frame and graceful serve-and-volley game.
He was obviously a massively more gifted player than any of us, and could have chosen to play with almost anyone. I was lucky to be in that group.
On court, he would playfully goad me with “you did everything right but watch the ball ‘P’ (he loved nicknames).” Then he would smile broadly. On my next shanked forehand, he would go non-verbal, making a “V” with two fingers and waving them near his eyes (a silent “watch the ball”) and he would smile some more.
When someone would make what appeared to be a bad line call, John would guffaw, laugh and proclaim, “Well, I guess that one didn’t get enough of the line.”
Despite a suboptimal end to his long-ago basketball coaching career, he remained a fiercely loyal Badgers fan with season tickets to football and never a harsh word about any UW coach. At basketball games, he would dress with an old-school GQ flair — a sport coat and pressed trousers — and graciously interact with anyone and everyone, especially older fans who recalled him from those UW Field House days.
John was able to play tennis until last December, when the colon cancer he battled for years finally made that impossible. Still, he came to the club at least briefly on most days until his final ones.
He renewed acquaintances in those last months, talking on the phone to friends around the city and the world, asking others how they were doing and talking about how he hoped to return to the court.
Two of his old friends, former governors Tommy Thompson and Jim Doyle, when alerted to John’s failing health, reached out quickly and warmly and reminisced with the old coach, which clearly tickled him.
The title of a 2016 biography by Madison author Dan Smith summed him up perfectly: “John Powless: A Life Well Played.”
My takeaway lessons from John include cherishing friends, enjoying the ride, embracing competition, and looking for the good in people.
I hope you have a friend or two who have that kind of impact on you.
The one I just lost cannot be replaced.
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