Like many athletes who weren't blessed with a large frame and Olympian genes, John McEnroe describes his rise to the top of the tennis world as improbable. But it really wasn't. From the time he first picked up a racket, he had a few intangibles that would work in his favor - an unquenchable thirst to win, a frenetic competitiveness, and amazing hand-eye coordination.
John Patrick McEnroe Jr. was born on February 16,1959, at the American military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, where his father, John Patrick McEnroe Sr., often known as J.P. McEnroe, was stationed with the air force and his mother, Kay, worked as a surgical nurse.
After J.P's discharge in 1960, the family moved to Flushing, New York, and later settled in Douglaston, a middle-class section of Queens. There were two younger McEnroe brothers, Mark (born 1962) and Patrick (born 1966), the latter of whom became a fine tennis player himself. J.P. earned his law degree in night school, and was talkative, demanding, and full of life, with a loud joke or opinion always on hand.
Kay, a no-nonsense mother who describes herself as someone who likes "everything done yesterday," had a harder view of life and never trusted outsiders. "Unfortunately, I'm like her in that way," said her oldest son.
McEnroe described his Douglaston neighborhood as something out of Leave It to Beaver, where he and his friends would spend long summer nights playing stickball out on Rushmore Street - a fine way to improve the eye-hand coordination so necessary for tennis. But much as he loved to play sports, McEnroe wasn't physically blessed, and in his youth he was short and pudgy and had a target on his chest for the neighborhood bullies.
He was called a runt by older kids but continued to engage in every sport available to him. He never minded getting his nose bloodied or causing a few scrapes and bruises himself. Early on, he developed a Napoleon complex.
Kay quickly instilled a no-quit attitude in him. Once, after he fell off his bike and hurt his arm, she told him to grit his teeth and go play tennis. Three weeks later they discovered that McEnroe had actually broken his arm. "We were rookies at the parent job," his father said, "but we got better at it."
Nothing would stop the McEnroes from climbing up the social ladder, and they moved three different times while in Douglaston. "They fully bought into the American dream," John Jr. said. "But it was a restless dream, and a big part of it was where you lived."