By John Calleri
Al Litto is gone. Though we are all enriched for having known Al – all of us who played tennis with him and all of those whom he has taught – a sadness still remains.
Al gave more to Buffalo city tennis than any person since Leo Kronman, a Buffalo public school teacher and four-time Muny singles champion, who taught tennis to me and many other city children in free summer lessons sponsored by The Buffalo Evening News that he began some 60 years ago.
But it is Al who spawned the tennis surge in Buffalo – “Tennis in the City,” he called it – that has brought so many more people to our public courts. And it is Al who has done more for Buffalo tennis than any other figure in the past half century.
Al did just about everything for city tennis. He ran the Muny Tennis and Junior Tennis championships for 14 years and, with tennis champion Earl Tomkins, ran the Buffalo Police Athletic League Inner City Tennis program for four years.
He donated some 180 new rackets to city high school teams, installed new nets and windscreens at the McMillan and South Drive courts in Delaware Park, and kept those courts in tiptop shape.
He sponsored tennis all over Buffalo and taught it to our citizens. He loved all kinds of people, but especially those, like himself, who came from very little. Al taught shift workers, house cleaners, working mothers, fast-food cooks and wheelchair enthusiasts; those who loved their tennis but needed pro instruction at Kmart blue-light prices.
Al gave them what they needed, topflight instruction with discipline and patience, and they loved him for it. They soon became a tribe, Al’s Pals and Al’s Gals, that gathered at the McMillan courts every weekend from Black Rock, North Buffalo and the East and West Sides.
They and I will mourn him – his easy wit and winning smile. But I, his teammate and his friend, will mourn him most of all, especially the way he played tennis, and that other game he played called life. You see, he played both games the same.
He seldom played it safe, he wasn’t afraid of losing, he waited for his shot to come and then he went for it. He didn’t fear his foe or the greater challenge, which became the cancer that finally took his life.
I last saw Al at the Village Glen Tennis Club some three weeks before he left us. Gaunt and walking with a cane, he brought me to an indoor court to see his newfound star, Monae, 9, a beautiful, athletic girl from Buffalo’s East Side. As Al’s wife, Annie, fed the girl tennis balls, Monae fell upon them quickly. Forehands, backhands, volleys. She ran for every ball. She was a revelation. Her strokes were smooth and confident, her brown eyes shone with joy.
Al had given her the same gift that he had given every student he had ever taught: the clean, pure joy of tennis.
Al and I shared that joy, playing on the courts since we were young and strong, since we hit the ball a ton and dreamed of tennis glory. Since the early days when we were immortal, and our dreams exploded outward with no bounds of space and time.
Now Al Litto is gone. Yet he lives in us. He lives on in Monae, who loves the game with every stroke she takes. He lives on in every Al’s Pal and Al’s Gal who learned the game from him. And he lives on in every Al’s Pal who played the game with him.
He lives on in all of us who loved him and learned not only tennis from Al, but the greater lessons of life.