PALMETTO -- Almost instantly, the squirmy, wiggling kids at Lincoln Middle School on Friday fell silent and still as they watched a demonstration given by tennis pro Bob Davis.
Davis, tennis racket in hand, whacked a powerful shot toward a partner, and then asked if any of the youngsters would like to try.
One young man, seventh-grader Brandon Courtney, 12, volunteered.
However, when he attempted to hit the ball, he missed or hit it off wildly into the bleachers in the school gym, where the demonstration took place.
"If you watch somebody that's good at it, it looks easy," explained Davis, who played professionally at the U.S. Open as a teenager, and has been acquainted with such tennis legends as the late Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters.
It was the kick-off of a new after-school program in Palmetto that will offer free tennis and golf instruction to kids at the inner-city school, many of whom have never played, or watched, either sport.
The program, sponsored by the nonprofit Panda Foundation, will also include academic tutoring, said Davis, the foundation's president.
The program grew out of an effort by Manatee County Commissioner Michael Gallen to open school playgrounds to the public during nonschool hours and on holidays, weekends and in summer.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, who hold spring training in Bradenton,
contributed $1,000 to help pay for equipment and personnel, said Anne Putnam, the Pirates' sales and business operations coordinator.
"The baseball team loves to give back to the community," she said.
Health advantages accrue to active youth, and physical motion also benefits the students behaviorially, said Gallen, who is now a lawyer but at one time worked as a teacher.
He stood confidently before the youngsters to ask: "How many of you guys have played tennis?" A few hands shot up.
"Tennis is a cool sport," Gallen told the kids.
It's a game that can keep people healthy and active, and one that can be played throughout life, he told them.
Individual sports like tennis and golf can teach what "you need to succeed at things in life," Davis said. "It teaches you how to deal with adversity -- very much like life itself."
Principal Ronnie King pitched another angle: "The richest female athlete is a tennis player," he said, urging youngsters to consider money and scholarships that such sports can bring to those who take them up seriously.
Afterward, Brandon Courtney said he would try tennis.
"It looks like a fun sport." Asked if he played any sport currently, he replied, "I used to play basketball, sometimes."
Jaylend Green, 12, a sixth-grader, found the game interesting and said he would give tennis a try, too.
But Holly Laughlin, 13, who was sitting behind Green, sniffed: "I play soccer; I prefer soccer."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.