How many people can you think of who gracefully and graciously got through an instance of mistaken-identity arrest and excessive police force just last month — turning the experience into a teaching tool — and now will be running a marathon for the first time, using the run to raise money for cancer research? I know of only one, James Blake, and I will be out on the street in New York City on November 1 to watch the marathon and cheer him on.
Though this will be the first marathon run for Blake, age 35, he has long been philanthropic. Since 2008, the James Blake Foundation — with a stated goal of "investing vital seed money at the leading edge of science, to speed up the most promising work and shorten the time it takes to turn lab discoveries into better treatments for patients" — has supported the Thomas Blake Sr. Memorial Research Fund
at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. This fund was named for and established in memory of Blake’s father, who died of gastric cancer in 2004. It’s dedicated to supporting cancer research at Sloan Kettering; specifically, it aims to improve early detection of cancers that are often found at later stages. In 2013, the James Blake Foundation surpassed $1 million in funds raised.
Blake grew up in Yonkers, a suburb of New York City, and started playing tennis in Harlem. He was part of the "Harlem Juniors" tennis program, for which his father volunteered and was an instructor. It was free to children who maintained a required grade point average in school.
Blake’s tennis career is not a story of easy victories, but it is the stuff of legend. The fact that, at his peak, he was ranked no. 4 in the world doesn’t truly illustrate the kind of player he has been. Instead, consider the fact that he was diagnosed with scoliosis at age 13 and wore a back brace 18 hours a day for five years, taking breaks from the brace to practice tennis. Consider that, having overcome this setback and risen in the sport, he then broke his neck in 2004, when he slipped on a clay tennis court while practicing in Rome and hit his head. Consider that his father died months later. And consider that in spite of it all, he returned to professional tennis in 2005 and was aptly named "Comeback Player of the Year."
This kind of tenacity might help make Blake a natural favorite of patients with cancer, who can find in his determination further inspiration for their own. One of these was my friend Catherine. I did not know till it was mentioned at Catherine’s memorial that she, like me, had especially loved James Blake — but it made total sense. Catherine, too, was a comeback kid, facing down a dire initial prognosis and living far longer, and more fully, than she’d been told would be possible. She died of breast cancer at age 30, but not before traveling the world extensively, completing a Master’s degree, marrying a true love, and winning hearts and admiration all around the globe.
Even in the wake of last month’s wrongful, and forceful, arrest, Blake’s grace and goodwill hold steady. At a press conference on October 28, he stated that the incident "doesn't indicate how proud I am of the NYPD and how thankful I'll be to them on Sunday [at the marathon] for all the hard work they're doing." He continued, "The vast majority of NYPD officers are heroes who wear the badge with honor."
On the other hand, Blake points out that what happened to him must be closely examined and acted upon: "I'm not angry about the aches and scrapes I got — those have healed. I'm angry because I don't want it to happen again to someone else. I'm frustrated that there isn't a system of accountability in place."
Writing about the upcoming marathon run for The Players Tribune,
Blake reflected on his history with and love for New York City. His words have deep resonance for all who’ve faced difficulties — health issues or any other — but refuse to be defined by them.
“For anyone who has ever called New York home,” he wrote, “each of the race’s 26.2 miles tells a story. Recently, my New York story added an unfortunate chapter. But a chapter is just that: a chapter. My New York is full of them, and each has shaped me into the person I am today."
Best of luck on Sunday, James. We’re with you.