Mr. Miyagi could have taken lessons from Saki Balafas.
The beloved Japanese Karate Kid character, with his unconventional and effective teaching manner, had its counterpart in Balafas. He was a Greek Olympian who went on to teach tennis to generations of inner-city kids at Moore Park in Allapattah.
Along the way, they learned about life.
Balafas died at his West Kendall home on April 6 at 91, about two years after he retired from his regular teaching post at the nearby Tennis Villas. His former students speak of a wise, kind and brilliant coach who would often eschew payment from the families of underprivileged children that he mentored at Moore Park, 765 NW 36th St.
For some, he would buy them lunch and offer transportation. Still others would receive new rackets, tennis shoes or reduced cost lessons. He taught them about culture, especially his passion for opera. Singer Maria Callas, a fellow Greek, and Dutch violinist André Rieu were favorites, said his wife, Lois Balafas.
“I’m a giving person. I like to give,” he said in a 2006 Miami Herald profile. “If I teach you, I make you champion of the world.”
Natalia Liss-Schull, one of his Kendall students in the mid-1980s, went on to a tennis scholarship at Florida International University. Wednesday, she sat with her coach’s wife at the Balafas home poring over items for a memorial they are planning. She remembers an exacting teacher, with a heavy Greek accent — “Saki Speak,” she laughs — and a family friend to whom she’d bring her own children for lessons.
Balafas, or “Saki” as everyone called him, carried rocks in his pocket and would use them to trace outlines on the court to depict optimal foot and racket placement for the perfect stroke.
Sometimes, as with Mr. “Wax-on, Wax-off” Miyagi in the Karate Kid films, Saki’s distinct accent would lead to amusing gaffes. One time, Liss-Schull said, Saki told an eager student to practice strokes in the mirror of his living room, a common repetitive chore to develop proficiency.
The student dutifully returned the next day and couldn’t wait to tell his coach how he practiced hitting the ball in the middle of his living room. That’s how he heard the instruction.
“You’d always go back to Saki because he knew what he was talking about,” Liss-Schull said.
For Saki, born Theodosios Balafas in Kardista, Greece, on Aug. 27, 1923, sports was ingrained.
While in the Greek military, Saki, who lost both of his parents by the time he was 20, became a member of the Panellinios Gymnastikos Syllogos, the oldest multi-sport club in Greece. He was on the Greek Olympics team for the 1948 Games in London and 1952 Games in Helsinki as a pole vaulter.
Coaches from UCLA hoping to tap Saki’s skills invited him to visit the California campus to demonstrate his training regimen. But on the way, in 1965, he stopped to visit relatives in Miami and they convinced him to stay and work in a family laundry business.
Soon, Saki would find his way to Moore Park where he began teaching tennis. Along with park director Bobby Curtis, the two created a tennis program at the park.
There, in the early 1970s, he discovered a young girl on the basketball field. He saw a tennis champ. As usual, Saki knew.
Kim Sands would go on to become the first black woman to receive a tennis scholarship from the University of Miami. After her 1978 graduation, she spent 10 years on the pro circuit, coached the Hurricanes in the 1990s, and taught tennis at Moore Park.
Today, Sands is a director at Legion Memorial Park in Overtown. “She’s carrying on Saki’s traditions,” Lois Balafas said.
“He was such a wise man,” Sands said. “He always said, ‘You’ll be playing tennis at 60 and I’ll be 60 next year and I play tennis still.”
Sands said his spirituality and unwavering belief in his young players drew people to him.
“He’d teach me for free because I didn’t know anything about tennis. I was already 14 when I met him and that’s late to start playing tennis. I didn’t know how difficult tennis was. It was so hot and so much work and because of his attitude and vicariously living through me and pushing me I couldn’t quit. I remember telling Saki, ‘The first day you don’t come to my tennis practice, I’m never coming back.’
“He never missed,” she said.
Because of Saki, Sands wants to give back. “This became a life-long love and an ambition to see other children go to college for free and get an education and move on,” she said. “He took me in as if I was his daughter and treated me so well.”
Lois Balafas was his student, too, in 1980 at the Kendall courts. She became his second wife two years later.
“When I met him I could not run around the tennis court. He said, ‘Lois, if you are going to play tennis you have to run after the tennis ball.’ I started running and training. I was 47 when I started this and eventually I ran seven half-marathons and won tennis tournaments.
“Saki had a calling in life,” Balafas said as she sifted through hundreds of photographs. One shot finds Saki in his tennis outfit. Every picture will show the same thing.
“His whole life was devoted to tennis and his students. It was a remarkable thing and I was fortunate to have met Saki and lucky to have him ask me to marry him. I’m glad I said yes,” Balafas said. “We’re going to miss Saki very much but it’s unbelievable all the things we remember about him and we will never forget. He was a very special person.”
In addition to his wife, Saki is survived by his son George and a half-brother in Greece, Stelios Balafas.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. May 2 at Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 9501 SW 117th Ave., Kendall. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Lois Balafas at 6723 SW 113th Pl., Miami, FL 33173 for use in the development of a tennis tournament that will be named for Saki.
“We want to keep the tennis ball going,” Balafas said.
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