Before he was moving cocaine by the ton across the United States. Before he was making as much as $2 million on a good day. Before the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department started a corrupt task force named after him. Before all of that, "Freeway" Rick Ross was Ricky Donnell Ross, a small, wiry kid just trying to get out of South Central.
And it wasn't drug dealing that was going to help him do that. It was tennis. Even through his infamous career as one of the world's foremost drug kingpins and then through his inevitable fall and subsequent self-reclamation, tennis has always been there. It's been there since the day he first picked up a racket.
"We were in the park one day playing roller derby and this guy named Richard Williams offered us an opportunity to win a quarter by hitting the balls into the box," Ross remembered. "It didn't start that day, but it started a short time afterwards."
The Richard Williams that guided Ross and countless other African-American kids through tennis is not Venus and Serena's dad. Yes, that Richard Williams did get his daughters involved in tennis after moving to South Central, but the Richard Williams who Ross met as a child was an L.A. tennis pioneer who would change the lives of countless neighborhood children.
Having moved to South Central with his mother when he was three, Ross fully committed himself to tennis by the time he entered his teens. He wasn't blessed with height or strength or reach, so he'd never play a power game. But he did find his style, one defined by a refusal to give up on any ball. Opponents might outpower him, but they would never outwill him on the tennis court.
"I was a baseline guy. I liked the back end. I wasn't really strong," Ross said. "I was more consistent. I was really quick."
That quickness eventually earned Ross a place on the tennis team at Susan Miller Dorsey High School, a program spearheaded by Richard Williams, his brother, Fred, and coached by Larry Smith, a champion at Cal State Los Angeles (CSLA) in the late-1950s and an assistant coach at CSLA after graduating.
If there was any sign that tennis might help Ross get out of the hood, enrolling at Dorsey may have been it. In a short time, Smith and the Williamses had built a powerhouse program that was a model for underserved communities across the country. The school collected a City Section record 80 consecutive Southern League wins between 1971 and 1978 while developing some of California's top young players.
The program's first star, Andrea Buchanan, trained with Althea Gibson, the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title. Billie Jean King, who would go on to win 39 Grand Slam titles, once said of Buchanan that she has "a great future and a chance of becoming a champion." Buchanan won an L.A. Unified School District title in 1971 and immediately went on her way to a promising pro career, which included a National Public Parks championship in 1976. It was in 1982, during a break from tennis, that she was gunned down while working at the Na Marions Fish Market in South Central Los Angeles. She was 26. The crime remains unsolved.
While Buchanan's too brief career was inspiring young, black tennis players like Rick Ross, Dorsey was burgeoning its reputation as a top-flight tennis program. A Dorsey player lost in the LAUSD boys championship match in three consecutive years between 1976 and 1978. As word began to spread around Los Angeles, pros like Arthur Ashe and Lawrence King would come by to train with the Dorsey team. Bill Cosby was even known to stop by.
"Everybody came out to Dorsey to play. It was like the mecca of black tennis," Ross said. "It gave us the feeling that we were on the right track."
This new world that tennis had created for Ross expanded when Smith partnered him with a wealthy family to train with. For Ross, it was the first real glimpse outside his community.
"They would pick me up in a Rolls Royce and take me to Beverly Hills. Their house was enormous," Ross said. "They had a tennis court in the backyard and a tennis house that was three times the size of the house that I lived in. They would pay me $20 an hour to come out and work out with their kid."
It was a turning point for the young Ross, whose mother was arrested after she murdered his uncle, George, during a domestic dispute. These afternoons in Beverly Hills were an escape, and tennis had brought him there.
By the 1980s, Dorsey High School was sending several players to local universities on tennis scholarships. One high school teammate, Larry Barnett, became a star at UC Santa Barbara, where he posted a 26-1 singles record in 1981 and won Big West conference titles in 1980 and 1982. The furthest Ross had gone in any tournament was the semifinals, but he had earned the attention of a recruiter at Cal State Long Beach. There was just one problem: Ross had never learned how to read.
When teachers at Dorsey looked to fail Ross, he claims Smith intervened. However, once the coaches at CSLB found out, the doors that years of training had opened were instantly shut.
"It was pretty simple," Ross said. "[Cal State Long Beach said] we can't accept you in here not being able to read and write and pass the SATs."
That was the turning point. Ross played briefly at Los Angeles Trade Technical College before leaving school behind. By then, a new life was calling.
"I went back to South Central. The first thing I started doing was hanging out with car thieves," Ross said. "I was playing tennis a little bit. But not consistently. My heart was no longer in tennis. My heart was in the street now."
Having studied auto upholstery in trade school, Ross applied those skills when he took on work at a local chop shop. It was there he first learned about cocaine.
Almost overnight, Ross was slinging crack. That endeavor escalated dramatically the day he met Oscar Danilo Blandon, a Nicaraguan expat and large-scale drug distributor who was using part of his profits to fund the Contra rebels in his home country. Through this partnership, Ross gained access to an almost-unlimited supply of cocaine at a time when the crack epidemic was about to overwhelm the country. He had been in the perfect place at the perfect time.
But Ross's rise, which eventually involved wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a 9mm revolver at all times, was built on a certain set of principles. Principles originally developed on the tennis court.
"Tennis helped me in the drug business, without question. I saw in tennis when I practiced hard how my game improved. When I took to the drug business, I took that same mentality," Ross said. "It's not over until it's over. Even though it can be match point, you can go from match point and turn the whole thing around."
Ross's exploits as one of the country's most powerful drug dealers eclipsed any of the success he ever had in tennis. As the head of a million-dollar-a-day empire, Ross's life had completely changed. For the first time, the dreams formulated during daytrips to Beverly Hills were being realized. He had more money than he'd ever be able to spend. Not that he didn't try.
He took care of his mother, who he'd been reunited with after her incarceration. He bought countless cars and properties, eventually losing track of exactly how many houses he owned. He bought a house from a liquor store owner for $250,000 cash. When the business owner mentioned he relied on small denominations for his store, Ross paid him in dollar bills.
Still, tennis remained on his mind. So much so that he sponsored some of his old high school teammates who had gone pro, including Larry Barnett. But one of Ross's proudest achievements as a multi-millionaire was the youth tennis program he established in his old neighborhood. Spearheaded by Ross's financial investment, the program kickstarted the local tennis factory he had been a part of years earlier.
"He would bring us out to the tennis court and teach us right from wrong. What to do and what not to do," said Le George Mauldin, Ross's nephew and one of the top-ranked youth players during the program's heyday.
Mentored by his uncle, Mauldin became one of the country's top-ranked tennis players at age 10. At the same time, a young girl from the neighborhood named Venus Williams was the top-ranked girl in the same age group. It may have seemed unusual coming from the kingpin known as Freeway, but the importance of education was the prevailing message to these young tennis players. Almost every child he encountered was told the story of how his college dreams had been dashed.
"That was the main reason why he told us to stay in school," said Mauldin, who today coaches youth tennis in Los Angeles. "To this day, that's what I tell my students. If you don't' know something, just say you don't know it and the teacher will take his or her time to explain it to you. Don't be too shy or nervous to ask for help."
It was a remarkable story during a dangerous time in South Central. It wouldn't last.
By the mid-1980s, Ross was being investigated by the DEA and law enforcement groups across the country. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department was spending countless hours on the Freeway Ricky Task Force, but Ross was proving to be a teflon don; no less slippery as a drug lord than he was as a tennis player.
While the corruption that plagued the task force helped Ross remain a free man, the heat bearing down on his operation was enough to make him consider getting out of the game.
That was until September 28, 1988, when police in Carlsbad, New Mexico seized nine kilos of cocaine from a bus traveling from Los Angeles to Cincinnati, one of the main satellites in Ross's network, where he was known as the "Six Million Dollar Man." That drug bust ultimately led to the indictment of 10 individuals, including Ross. He would eventually plead guilty to cocaine trafficking charges.
By then, 35 deputy sheriffs and six related individuals had been prosecuted by the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney's Office in 11 trials over corruption charges ranging from beating suspects to planting evidence. Ross seized the opportunity to testify against the corrupt police force that helped raze his empire. He spent three days on the stand describing in great detail the intricacies of his drug operation. In exchange for his testimony, Ross's sentence, originally 121 months, was reduced to 51 months.
Upon his release, Ross struggled with debt caused by his lavish spending. Desperate for a solution, he was convinced by his old partner Blandon to broker one final drug deal. On March 2, 1995, Ross was busted by federal agents beside a Chevy Blazer packed with 100 kilos of cocaine. Blandon, who had become a full-time paid informant for the U.S. government, served Ross up to the DEA on a silver platter. Originally sentenced to life in prison, his sentence was reduced to 20 years. Without Ross's money and mentorship, the young tennis players he sponsored in South Central Los Angeles were left in the lurch.
"I was in shock. I would go to school, to the tennis courts, and home to do homework. Then it was basically just going to school and coming home to do homework," Mauldin said. "I saw guys winning tournaments that I was beating. That was definitely a big-time blow."
Aged 14 and with his tennis career suddenly at a crossroads, Mauldin's story got the attention of staff at the famed Bollettieri Tennis Academy, which invited him to train in Bradenton, Florida for two weeks. But many of the players Mauldin grew up with didn't enjoy the same fate.
"A couple of them took the wrong path. Once in a while I would call them and we would talk about it. They just kind of wished they had tried to stay with tennis," Mauldin said. "Some were gangbanging. Some started a family. But they could have done a lot more if they had an opportunity to stay on the tennis courts."
Meanwhile, Ross spent much of his time while incarcerated in the library. It was in that prison library that he would overcome the illiteracy that ended his youth tennis days, reading close to 300 books during his time in prison. In between reading business and self-help books, Ross learned that the Texas federal penitentiary he'd been imprisoned in had a tennis court. From that moment on, Rick Ross began rediscovering the baseline.
"I think that I may have peaked in prison, as far as tennis goes. I probably became the best that I've ever been while I was in prison. Tennis became my hustle," Ross said. "I was teaching guys how to play and they would pay me $10 to $20 per hour. I would build these guys' games up so well that they would challenge me. We started doing some of the same drills I had learned in school."
Ross was a new man in a new world upon his release in 2009. He even found that a former correctional officer named William Roberts had co-opted his name, turned it into a hip-hop persona, and become a successful rapper. Freeway Rick Ross sued the rapper known as Rick Ross in 2010, the case was ultimately dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
But Ross's dreams of a new—and legit—empire never relied on the lawsuit. He's pursuing a clothing line, a rap label, an energy pill, and a film based on his life. He also has a book out, Rick Ross the Untold Biography, with a website to match. And of course, there's still tennis. Shortly after being released, he began sponsoring young tennis players again, providing a few hundred dollars here and there to help them attend tournaments. But his biggest tennis project remains in its infancy.
"I have two babies right now who are swinging a racket. I have a son who is four years old and I have a daughter who is two years old. I think right now they are probably two of the most advanced people in their age groups," Ross said. "They've been swinging the racket. They do 100 swings every couple of days. Nothing really hard. I believe that muscles train themselves to function a certain way."
His greatest hope for his two youngest children, son Bricen and daughter Jordan, is that they pursue tennis further than he ever did. That likely means college, a dream for his children motivated by that lost tennis scholarship to Long Beach.
More than 30 years later, he still dwells occasionally on how his life may have changed had he played tennis in college. He'll keep thinking about it, wondering how life may have been had Freeway Rick Ross never existed.