THE STORY of how Venus and Serena Williams' father fought off drug dealers so that he could train his daughters on decrepit, drug-infested tennis courts in Compton, Calif., is almost legendary.
But what do we really know about Richard Williams, the man? At 72, he's a controversial figure in the world of tennis. Now he has a new book, Black and White: The Way I See It, that shares his life story as well as tips on raising successful children.
But don't buy it thinking it's a tell-all.
It's far from it.
For starters, the book, out today from Atria Books, doesn't even hint at Williams' eyebrow-raising marriage to his current wife, LaKeisha Williams, who, at 34, is just a year older than Venus. Nor does it mention the couple's baby, 1-year-old Dylan Williams. (Williams divorced Oracene Price, Venus' and Serena's mother, in 2002.)
I also was disappointed that Black and White didn't take me step-by-step through the process that created two of the greatest woman tennis players ever. Williams, always the entrepreneur, told me that he is saving that for his next book.
What he has done, though, with the help of writer Bart Davis, is cobble together something that's part memoir, part how-to guide on raising kids.
"I hope that people will look at it and feel that anything they would like to achieve or accomplish, they can do so, and there's nothing that cannot be done if you give it your best effort all the time," Williams told me during a telephone interview earlier this month.
Up from poverty
The reason he comes off like a motivational speaker is that Williams' life is really a rags to riches story.
Born in Louisiana in 1942, he is the son of a field hand and a father he never got to know. Williams grew up in a three-room shack, and by age 8 was a thief.
When I couldn't get the white man's respect, I dishonored him by stealing from him. I had no sense of guilt or remorse. I was the injured party.
After an incident in which he infiltrated the local Ku Klux Klan while disguised in a stolen Klan uniform, Williams decided it was time to leave Louisiana. In 1960, he hitched a ride on a freight train to Chicago, where he made a life for himself before becoming disenchanted by the impoverished conditions of the city's black populace.
By the mid-'60s, Williams was living in Los Angeles and working at odd jobs. He started a cleaning company, the White Glove Maintenance Corp., which he sold a decade later at a "handsome profit." Adamant about not working for anyone else, he started a cement business and later a successful security firm.
There's no mention in the book of a first wife or the five children he reportedly fathered with her. But he writes about meeting Price, a single mother of three daughters, at a bus stop in 1978.
It wasn't much later when he was watching TV and heard an announcer talking about a Romanian tennis player who had won $40,000 in a tournament.
Without hesitation, I said to myself, 'I'm going to have two kids and put them in tennis.'
So, what if he'd never so much as picked up a racket? He was going to raise champion tennis players.
Before either Venus or Serena were born, he wrote a 75-page training plan for himself, his future daughters and his wife. Once he finally had his future champs - Venus was born in 1980 and her sister the following year - Williams moved them to the mean streets of Compton.
I'd always felt that the ghetto makes you tough and strong - unless it doesn't do anything for you at all but get you killed. I needed to have my girls around kids where I was trying to take them. They had to learn to be rough, tough and strong.
That was the plan, but Williams quickly regretted choosing it. When he tried to clean up the decrepit neighborhood tennis courts so that he could teach his daughters the game, drug dealers savagely beat him. But he kept coming back.
I got some whiplash reading Williams' book.
He generalizes about how he coached his daughters, concentrating instead on his philosophy of child-rearing and his own life.
Williams spares nothing, though, when it comes to the infamous 2001 Tennis Master Series in Indian Wells, Calif., during which his daughters were booed and called the N-word after Venus pulled out of a match with her sister because of a knee injury.
The crowd booed Serena as she got ready to play Kim Clijsters for the championship. People applauded her double faults and unenforced errors. Blacks have long been accustomed to being belittled, criticized, and treated like second-class citizens. Here was proof that race still played a role in sports as Serena experienced firsthand the results of hate.
Williams vowed that he would never go back to that tournament again.
Raising confident women
While we chatted, I asked him what kind of advice he gives his daughters about their lives now, and about their relationships with men. Both women are single and dating.
Last week, Serena was spotted in Paris hanging out with Kim Kardashian. Venus recently withdrew from a match in Spain, citing a foot injury.
"I think there comes a time when you stop giving advice," Williams said. "Everything I can teach them, I've taught them already.
"One of the greatest things I could have taught my daughters was to love themselves, and they really, really do. I think everything is going to be OK with them."