Championing the kids
Kids are the payoff for American Martyrs’ athletic director and sport promoter Denny Lennon
by Randy Angel
From the first Olympic Games, sports have been considered forms of entertainment.
Players who reach the pinnacle of their sport consider themselves professional athletes. But like movie stars and musicians, who think of themselves as artists, they are also entertainers. Their livelihood is made possible by a fan base that spends its hard-earned dollars to support them.
Even the youngest players of AYSO and Little League baseball games, while obtaining a few hours of much needed exercise, still provide entertainment to the proud parents and grandparents watching from the sidelines each weekend.
Denny Lennon is a sports promoter with a unique view on the world of sports. He sees sports as offering a more important value to society than simply entertainment. And it begins with America’s youth.
Lennon, 41, has already made an impact on thousands of young athletes, particularly on volleyball and basketball courts. After graduating from St. Mark Elementary School in Venice, St. Bernard High School and UCLA, Lennon returned to St. Mark as a coach and later as its athletic director, leading the school to more than 80 league championships and 20 Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Final Four appearances.
In 2003, Lennon was inducted into the Los Angeles (CYO) Hall of Fame, not only for his on-court achievements, but also for his development of the CYO’s top tournaments, including the McDonald’s (now Tachikara) Cup Girls Volleyball Tournament, the largest middle school tournament in Southern California.
After 20 years of teaching and coaching at St. Mark Elementary, Lennon has accepted the job of co-athletic director at American Martyrs School in Manhattan Beach.
“When the opportunity at American Martyrs came, I quickly took it,” Lennon, who now lives in Westchester, said. “Their program has grown so much, that they needed more help. They have a great program and a great community, plus I think that the American Martyrs gym is gorgeous, the best gym in Manhattan Beach.”
Lennon has been involved with a number of volleyball events, including the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Beach Volleyball program. He has served as the tournament’s director since its inception.
In a little more than a decade, Lennon has seen the AAU Junior Beach Volleyball program grow from a 16-team National Championship tournament held at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro in 1994, to this year’s five-state, 14-stop tour, featuring more than 2,000 athletes, culminating with over 200 boys and girls teams competing in Hermosa Beach for the AAU National Junior Beach Volleyball Championship.
Lennon’s success should be of no surprise. It’s in his genes.
Lennon’s grandfather, Bert, was a publicist who moved from the Midwest to Venice to promote silent movies for then independent director Louis B. Mayer. The Lennon family continues to have strong roots in the area.
“Venice was the playground for the Hollywood crowd back then,” Lennon said. “So I guess I’m third generation Venetian.”
Denny is the youngest of Bob and Jeanette Lennon’s seven children. His dad also has seven siblings, which gave Denny a large, not to mention talented, family that includes 63 first cousins.
During the 1940s, the Lennon Brothers were a popular swing band. In the ‘50s, the Lennon Sisters were a regular singing group on the Lawrence Welk Show, before hosting their own variety show.
Although entertainment is in his blood, Denny admits his lack of musical talent. “I’m the black sheep of the family as far as music goes,” he laughs. “But I grew taller than most Lennons, so I did get the sports thing.”
Lennon caught the sports bug from his uncles Bill and Jimmy. Bill, the father of the Lennon Sisters, was a coaching icon in the Venice area before his untimely death came via a gunshot from a deranged fan in 1969.
“My uncle Bill had a boxing ring set up in his yard, so when boys in the neighborhood would have problems, they would wind up in the ring and after a couple of rounds, they were friends again,” Lennon recalls.
Jimmy Lennon was a legendary ring announcer in the ‘60s and ‘70s. His son Jimmy, Jr., continued where his dad left off, becoming an announcer in the ‘80s and is still going strong today. Both went on to portray themselves in numerous movies.
“I used to go to the Olympic Auditorium to watch the fights and see my uncle introduce the fighters,” Lennon recalled. “He was very popular with Hispanic fighters. Uncle Jim would pronounce their names with a better accent than they would.”
Denny also credits former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden as one of his greatest influences. “Being a hoops fan, I just idolized him in my youth,” Lennon said. “But in later years, I’ve adopted so much of his philosphy on life, and in turn pass it on to my young athletes.”
Denny remembers most of his family being crazy about sports while growing up in Venice. “I played all sports as a youth. We had a grass volleyball court in our back yard, about two-thirds the size of a normal court and I was always playing with my older brother and his friends. I was also known for always bouncing a basketball around.”
When cousins would visit, the Lennons would have enough players for a few teams, so, with the family being promoter types, they decided to begin a neighborhood tournament. The first tournament started with 12 teams. It quickly grew into what became known as the Venice Backyard Championships (VBC).
“One year we had a 32-team, double elimination championship in my backyard alone,” Lennon said. “It started at six in the morning, and I ended up winning it, so I think I finally put the ball down around midnight. My mom was saying, ‘Honey, it’s time to turn off the lights.’”
The tournament grew to include courts in five back yards and three front yards, all on one block of Harding Avenue. Jimmy Lennon, Sr. was the guest announcer. The Lennon Sisters, as well as their younger brothers and cousins from the rock group “Venice” performed the Star Spangled Banner. The proceeds went to support St. Mark Elementary School.
“We would block off the street and have over 100 teams competing and more than a thousand people would come to our block for the day,” Lennon said. “My cousins were involved with a charity and they would raffle off a car. A friend of mine would bring his horse and give all the kids rides. One family opened up a Margarita bar in the back of their house. It was a lot of fun.”
The pros call
One of the couples playing in the tournament was Marty Carillo and his future wife Linda Chisolm, a Silver Medallist in the 1988 Olympics and member of the Women’s Pro Beach Volleyball Association (WPVA). They had just moved away from their promoter and were trying to establish themselves, so they asked Denny if he would be interested in helping them set up their tournament.
“While I was in Fresno helping them set up their tournament, the director realized they didn’t have an announcer and I volunteered,” Lennon said. “They said that if I wasn’t any good, they’d ‘have that mike out of my hand by the end of the first game.’ Well, by the end of that weekend, the tour commisioner had invited me to Hawaii for the next tournament, and I ended up doing the stage announcing and promotions for the Women’s Pro Beach Volleyball tour for the next five or six years.”
Lennon said that his involvement with the WPVA led him to a good base of people who were really involved with the sport. He added another event to his resume, promoting a pro-celebrity event in Santa Monica in 1994-95.
One of the friends Lennon made was Geno Grajeda, a referee on the tour and a CYO coach. Grajeda was deeply involved with AAU baseball and had aspirations of starting an AAU junior beach volleyball program, so he approached Lennon about getting the youth organization of the ground.
“The only beach in the area we could get to hold the tournament at was Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro,” Lennon said. “The trick to that was having a friend of ours air it on local cable television. They were happy to have a show, we were happy to have anything, and the kids thought it was big time.
“The next thing you know, we started adding events and went out of state. We were fortunate that the AAU was a great structure. The AVP wasn’t funding us in any way, but wanted us on their site to bring in more fans, and the kids really like playing next to the pros. USA Volleyball was an indoor organization, so they weren’t much help.
“AAU thinks outside of the box and let us think outside of the box about where the sport could go and how well we could do. We really had the right organization to let us grow like we have.”
The AAU honored Lennon at its 2004 AAU National Convention, where Lennon was the recipient of the Jack Schatz Award for his work in developing the beach volleyball program.
The aspect of the AAU Junior Beach Volleyball program that delights Lennon so much is that the kids administrate their own courts, a function Lennon believes leads young players to learn the game, to love the game, and have a feeling of ownership of the sport.
“The sportsmanship that the kids show is incredible, Lennon said. “It’s much like junior tennis and junior golf, which most people don’t realize is officiated by the athletes. The players themselves resolve their own conflicts. The only time we have a problem is when parents step in to question a call or the score. Outside of that, the kids do an awesome job.
“Those kinds of ideas — that love of the game and feeling of responsibility – are what we want to take to the next level. Whether that means having a television outlet on a consistent basis, a magazine, or whatever, we just need more funding to bring in more kids, because we are not in the middle of country. There are still a lot of kids who don’t have access to the sport, yet it is an easy sport to play.”
Always the promoter, Lennon is constantly seeking methods to elevate the status of beach volleyball with today’s youth. He notes that the general public is aware of Little League baseball, AYSO, and the AVP, but not the AAU program.
“There is still a lot of prejudice against beach volleyball in the rest of the country,” Lennon admits. “Many coaches say, ‘It throws off a player’s timing, that it’s not part of our indoor program in the Midwest, so I’m not going to push it for you.’
“The cross training indoor and beach volleyball is great. With the two-on-two game, you get multiple repetitions, always serving, always passing the ball. That pays off and transfers over to the indoor game.
“Kids today are not into the same sponsors that the AVP has,” Lennon said. “Kids are not necessarily into Speedo and Nautica, but are into other brands that appeal to the youth.”
Lennon has constant feedback on the likes and dislikes of the younger generation, having two children who have clearly inherited their father’s genes.
Vaun, 13, teamed with Dylan Ramey, of Manhattan Beach, to win the gold medal in the Boys Under-14 division at this summers’ XXXIX AAU Junior Olympic Games held in New Orleans. He also competes for the Riptides volleyball club and plays basketball, volleyball, and quarterback on the football team for St. Mark. He also serves as the school’s student body president.
Ciena, 10, is beginning her athletic career and involvement with sports, while Denny’s wife Christine is a teacher at St. Mark and tour director for the AAU Beach Volleyball program.
“I think it’s so important what kids learn from sports,” the elder Lennon said. “That’s why I’m so involved with the CYO. It’s an awesome tool for teaching young minds how to handle pressure, how to work with a group, how to set goals and expectations. These are some of the things that don’t always come across to some kids in the classroom. They need a different way.”
Like every organization he has been involved with, Lennon brings his passion for children and athletics to the Manhattan Beach community with a strong desire for success and growth.
“American Martyrs has so much potential,” Lennon said. “I’m very happy and the people I am meeting are great. I’d like to develop larger events to show off the beautiful campus at American Martyrs, but progress requires change, and that takes time.”
From the beach to the inner city
As if Lennon’s life wasn’t full enough, he also owns D.L. Sports, which handles the promotions for the AAU beach volleyball tour. The company also directs programs of the CYO, sells equipment, and provides referee services.
D.L. Sports has contracted to revive a sports program in Watts called Saint Lawrence Brindisi, on the corner of Century and Compton, not far from the Jordan Downs Project.
Over 80 percent of the kids live in the projects and over 90 percent are being subsidized for their education.
“These are kids that are hungry for some kind of athletics.” Lennon said. “Some of these kids are happy to have one ball for their whole recess.
“What a great tool through athletics we have to help these kids learn to work with a group and become more competitive in the marketplace, wherever they decide to go. These kids are proud just to wear their school uniforms. They look neat, are well mannered, and you can tell that they are just chomping at the bit for more opportunities.
“The funding is beginning to come in and our goal is to make this a model program for the rest of the inner-city. We want principals of other Catholic schools, and public schools for that matter, to look at our program and see how valuable athletics are for these kids and for bringing the community together. Things like this really fire me up.”
Another promotion of D.L. Sports is the Tachikara Cup VI, a girl’s volleyball tournament, billed as “The Largest Blacktop Middle School Volleyball Tournament in the Country.”
The event, scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 22 on Couer D Alene, is just one block west of Harding Avenue in Venice, where the Lennons created the VBC years ago.
Last year’s event, which had more than 2,500 in attendance, saw the 8th grade team of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Hermosa Beach take second place, as did St. Mark’s 7th grade squad.
“I guess it reflects the Lennon genes, because we can’t do anything just average,” Lennon said of the tournament. “It’s become the step child of the VBC. We’ve grown to 40 teams playing on eight courts on the black top – it’s beautiful, it’s old school. Vendors are in the street, two to three thousand people in attendance. The courts are so tight that you can barely play a ball out of bounds. We blast the music so the coaches can’t yell at the kids.”
Last year, AVP Olympian Holly McPeak was the guest of honor. AVP Olympic gold medallist Misty May came the year before. AVP Olympian gold medallist Dain Blanton has also been honored, all bringing their Olympic medals to show the kids.
“My cousins sing the national anthem,” Lennon added. “It’s really cool. It’s become the hub of CYO, where kids will their coaches, ‘Please get us into the Tachikara Cup.’ A lot of the kids cannot afford to play club volleyball, so it’s the Super Bowl for them.”
Lennon’s strong family values are apparent in his work and he is quick to give thanks for his upbringing and those who have helped make his endeavors a success.
“What a great business I’m in, to be able to involve my kids in my work,” Lennon said. “When I was a kid, an out-of-town trip was to Big Bear or San Diego. Because of volleyball, my kids have gotten to travel and meet other kids all over the country.”
It’s another welcome pay-off for the youth sports promoter.