It was the ’50s in Jamaica, and Bell lived with his great-aunt while his mother served as a domestic worker for an American family. The mother of that household was Betty Pratt, who had once been a top-10 tennis player in the U.S. and a semifinalist at Wimbledon. When Bell turned 9, in 1960, Pratt got him a job as a ball boy at Montego Bay Tennis Club, setting him on a groundbreaking path that encompassed national titles, civil-rights hurdles, world travel and lessons learned from Ilie Nastase.“
It was like a gift from God,” he says.
Bell made the most out of it. Between stints chasing down tennis balls for wealthy guests, Bell and the other ball boys were allowed to play tennis. Bell was a natural. Within three years he was teaching lessons at Montego Bay.
His talent, ambition and determination took him far: to a gaudy record (and back-to-back national championships) at Wingate Junior College; to Wake Forest, where he was the first black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference; to the pro circuit, where he nearly took a set off the No. 1 player in the world; and to success as an accounting executive in huge corporations and nonprofits.
At Wingate, Bell grew to love the world of numbers, ultimately earning an accounting degree from Boston College in the 1970s. He served decades in corporate accounting before moving into the nonprofit sector. Last year he retired as the chief audit officer for World Vision International, a Christian relief organization that has more than 40,000 employees and operates in 80 countries.
All the while, Bell has continually given back, first by turning to the nonprofit world so his work would benefit the needy, and, now that he’s got more time on his hands, by serving as a first-year trustee at Wingate University.
The man with the big serve has settled nicely into a life serving others.
Being a ball boy at Montego Bay enabled Bell to learn the game and pick up tips from some of the world’s best players. Top touring pros often came to town and played at the club, including Don Budge, the first man to win the Grand Slam (all four major titles in one calendar year). Budge helped Bell learn how to hit a proper backhand. “My backhand was one of my stronger strokes,” Bell says. “As a matter of fact, they said I had Budge’s backhand.”
Pretty soon Bell was one of the top juniors in Jamaica, and by his late teens he was being recruited by colleges and universities to come to America.
At the time, head coach Ron Smarr was assembling a powerhouse men’s tennis team at Wingate Junior College. It was the first stop on a record-setting career for Smarr, who retired from Rice University in 2011 as the winningest men’s tennis coach in U.S. college history.
Even though Bell had never set foot on campus, Smarr persuaded him to join a team that had gone 27-4 the preceding season and finished third in the national tournament. “Coach Smarr was just phenomenal,” Bell says. “I felt at home even before I got here.”
Bell didn’t disappoint. The team went 60-6 in Bell’s two years, winning the National Junior College Athletic Association championship both seasons, and Bell was named All-American.
In the classroom, Bell was studious and serious. Socially, he says, he fit in, though as one of the few black students at a college in the early ’70s in the South he had his share of run-ins. Overall, he says, he felt accepted.
“For the most part, you know, the teachers were great. I had no problems with them,” he says. “And the student body for the most part, it was fine. I think part of it was because I was an athlete, and you know we had a very good tennis team.”
Bell was philosophical about the few race-related problems he did encounter. “It builds character,” he says. “Those little bumps in the road along the way, it only makes me stronger. … This is the deck I was dealt, and I am making the best of it.”
After his stellar Wingate career, Bell moved on to Wake Forest, where being the first black tennis player in the ACC created some difficult situations. The private club where the Demon Deacons had practiced closed its doors to the team. Wake simply found another venue. Another time the team was turned away from a hotel in Florida because Bell was with them.
The soft-spoken Bell shook it all off, and he thrived on the tennis court, advancing to the third round of the NCAA tournament his senior season. But he dropped out of school before graduating, to try his hand at the pro circuit.
His education this time was in the ruthlessness of the world of pro sports.
Bell moved back to his native Jamaica, where he worked as a teaching pro and polished his game for the pro circuit. Bell figured that a tournament in Kingston, Jamaica, could be his breakout event. “So I trained,” he says. “I ran on the beach, like five miles a day. I was in great shape.”
Then he drew Ilie Nastase, the world’s No. 1 player, in the first round. Nastase, known as “Nasty” for his win-at-all-costs approach to the game, found himself tied 2-2 in the first set against a big-serving local. He started working the crowd to throw Bell off his game.
“I was serving up 40-15. The guy was in the stands dancing,” Bell says. “He broke my concentration. Total collapse.”
Bell eventually regained his composure, and suddenly he found himself again serving at 40-15, this time at 5-5 in the second set. Bell planned to serve wide to Nastase’s forehand and put the resulting volley away. “Everything went perfectly,” he says. “He returned the ball exactly where I expected it to come back. He just kind of hit the ball and gave up.”
Bell thought, “I’m going to enjoy this volley.” Bell cleanly struck his volley, but he hadn’t put Nastase away. “In a split second I looked back and the ball came streaking by me.”
Nastase had somehow tracked down Bell’s shot and hit a winner. Bell folded and saw his chance for a monumental upset slip away.Bell never made it on the pro circuit. After the Nastase match he got a sponsor and played some tournaments, but eventually he realized the tour was more aggravation than it was worth.
Bell returned to finish his undergraduate studies, this time at Boston College, where he received his degree in accounting. He and his wife, Ivylynn, eventually made their home in New York, and Bell worked his way up the corporate ladder at global corporations and large government entities, such as the New York Port Authority.
But something kept gnawing at him.
Bell got paid handsomely for his work, but he felt that he wasn’t making enough of a difference in society. “I saw how the corporate and government sector operated,” he says. “It’s for the bottom line and political agendas. I said, ‘Do I really want to spend my life doing that?’”
Around 2005 he started considering a move. His two children, Andrea and Adrian, were finishing their university education, and Bell wanted a more meaningful career. “I could accumulate a lot of material wealth and whatnot,” he says, “but how’s that going to make me feel, when I know there is so much need and so much to do, in terms of humanity?”
He moved first to Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit that builds housing for the homeless, as vice president of international audit. After five years there, he moved to World Vision International, the global aid organization.Bell took a pay cut to move to the nonprofit sector, but he says it was worth it. “I got to see the world,” he says, “and also contribute to making it a better place.
”Now that he’s retired, Bell plans to continue giving back. He plans to start his own nonprofit, which he says will focus on the root cause of a major global problem, such as unemployment among young people.