How does anyone attempt, successfully, to pay homage to one of the most influential people in their life? Two books and five podcast seasons simply wouldn’t do to express the impact. It would be a Sisyphean endeavor to attempt to write a summation of an individual whose life could be characterized as Shakespearean in its endurance, but here I am — rolling the boulder up the hill.
This morning I woke up to discover that my mentor and friend had passed away. If you live long enough, you know what that feels like. The loss of someone you have so much love for is a debt that cannot be paid — it stays with you forever. I felt compelled to talk to him one more time, to impress upon him what he had done for me, but now it is too late, so here I am writing what I would say. What we remember is never the details, but rather the impression we’re left with, like a beautiful piece of prestidigitation. This is not who Daniel Burgess was, but who he was to me.
Right after college, my family and I moved from Queens to Long Island. I had no idea what I was doing, lost like so many other 20-somethings. Without a car, I took a job that was close enough for me to walk to, associate at Blockbuster video — I hated it. My passion for movies was dwarfed by the soul sucking, pride swallowing, daily grind of retail. On the best days I’d only suffer a mild ennui that was painful enough. One fateful day, a customer of mine struck up a conversation about tennis with me; they were coming from playing. ‘Freeport Tennis (the club which Daniel ran) is looking for people, you should apply.’ Within weeks, I was working the front desk, then I was working the pro shop, then I found myself on court. The circumstances that bring us to a tipping point in our life are always a surprise. One pro got sick, another moved back home to Jamaica, and another was a no-show — what are the chances of that. Daniel came to me and said, ‘I need you to teach today.’ ‘I don’t know how to teach,’ I replied. Daniel was asking, but he wasn’t; this was mandate he had given me, the first of many. ‘You’ve seen it done a thousand times, I need you today.’ And so Daniel had given me a direction, a purpose, a career. I was awful at first, but Daniel made me better. Not only did he mentor me to make me a better instructor, he mentored me to be a better person. He gave me the most important thing a mentor can give someone, the desire to learn more. A great mentor/coach is someone that makes themselves progressively less needed. In tennis, you’re by yourself on the court. Teaching someone how to improve, problem solve, to be curious and go beyond what is directly given to them by their coach is incalculable in value.
Because of Daniel’s mentorship, I went on to be a successful coach. I helped others, the way he helped me. One teenager came to me wanting to join his school team. We had 30 minutes for the next four weeks to make that happen. He was awful! When I asked why he wanted to join the team, he told me it’s because all of his friends were going to be on the team and he wanted to spend time with them after school. Stakes were high, this was important for him. Not only did he make the team, he was the captain the following year. One girl took lessons with me after having a horrible experience with two other coaches. She would cry on the court with the other pros and began to hate the sport. In very little time, she not only improved, but grew to love the sport in a way that surprised her parents. There are dozens of stories I could tell you of people reaching to me after I stopped coaching professionally to let me know that they loved their time with me, that I was the best instructor they ever had. But I was only the best for them because I learned from the best; that’s who Daniel was, he was the best of us.
After I stopped teaching, I started a career in book publishing. Publishing is not an easy industry to get into. The old vanguard of publishing professionals fancy themselves gatekeepers of culture and the few positions that are available are given mostly to those who prove themselves worthy (and willing) to slave away for more hours than anyone should work for very little compensation. But, my mentor and friend Daniel is always a voice in the back of my mind reminding me once you walk through a door, you have a responsibility to help others walk through it as well. Because of Daniel, I serve on multiple diversity committees, sponsor young adults to attend publishing events, and mentor several people every year. With luck, and hard work, his philosophy will change my industry.
My story is not one that is unique, only unique to me. Daniel touched the lives of countless people like myself. His fingerprint is on the heart and soul of everyone that met him. And while all men, consciously or unconsciously, steer their boat toward immortality in this life, the storm of time takes us all. True immortality lies in leaving a legacy. For as long as people remember you and speak your name, you still live in this world. Daniel Burgess will live forever because I will embody his philosophy, I will teach his lessons, and I will speak his name.
Thoughts From Tennis Community Members
"I met Danny many years ago at Freeport Indoor when my then five-year-old picked up a racquet for the first time. Over the years Danny became a close friend to my whole family and I quickly learned that not only did he never say no, but he would never take no for an answer. That resulted in many new things for me including joining the USTA LI board, creating a newsletter with him and more recently, teaching reading and writing enrichment at his tennis camp. I can honestly say that getting to know Danny changed my life for the better and I will miss him so much." - Jacki Binder
"Daniel was far more than a tennis instructor to many. He was a community leader, father, brother, grandfather and much more. Words cannot describe what he did for me on a personal level as both a mentor and a teacher. Daniel was always there for me. He always went above and beyond with everything, whether it be volunteering -- which he loved -- or teaching children at his camp. Daniel was a great person and he will be missed by everyone who met him." - Ross Binder
“Danny was more than just a coach, he was a friend. He made lessons so much fun, and I was lucky to have him teach me how to be a coach too. I hope that one day I can be half the amazing coach he was.” - Julia Cicchillo
“Danny has left the world and our local tennis community a better place than he found it. He was a teacher, friend and mentor to so many with such a kind and charitable heart. He will be sorely missed but his positive influence will be felt forever.” – Steve Kaplan
“Danny was one of the few people that got me active with the USTA again after raising my two children. He helped me to organize community festivals, and later on it led me to organize the Family Tennis League. The work has been very gratifying, and I hope to continue his legacy and share my love for tennis. I ran into Danny at the outdoor courts a few days before he passed. I could never have imagined that would be our last time together. As he was about to start teaching, he said, ‘we need to do something about fixing all the cracks on these courts!’ Thanks to Danny, I now have my next project! He was loved by the whole community and will be missed by all.” – Fabiana Rezak
Miguel Cervantes III
Miguel Cervantes III teaches at Carefree Racquet Club and privately outdoors. Miguel specializes in teaching beginners, training juniors and coaching doubles. He may be reached by e-mail at UnderstandingTennis@gmail.com.