By John Hareas, NBA.com
Posted Sep 10 2009 4:58PM
Listen to Bob Lanier speak about community service and you not only hear but feel the passion in his voice. Watch Lanier at any number of the NBA Cares events throughout the year and you'll see a 6-foot-11 Hall of Fame center not merely talking the talk but rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work. Lanier may have scored nearly 20,000 points and excelled in an era of Hall of Fame centers (Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Willis Reed and Dave Cowens), but his off-the-court résumé is also Hall of Fame worthy.
With two decades of outstanding community service with the NBA under his belt, the special assistant to the NBA commissioner is being honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as the recipient of the Mannie Jackson-Basketball's Human Spirit Award, along with Ken Hudson and Alonzo Mourning. NBA.com's John Hareas caught up with Lanier recently.
NBA.com: You have created a legacy off the court with your tireless efforts in community service through the NBA. Was that the plan when you retired from the game in 1984?
Lanier: No but I've always done community service since I was young. Early on, my mother got all of the young boys in the church to help feed families on the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We would deliver meals to sick children. It really kind of started there and it never stopped.
When I attended St. Bonaventure, I was helping with an Indian tribe and mentoring young Indian kids. In the NBA, David Stern really gave me a forum domestically and now internationally to really follow a passion and make a difference in people's lives all over the world. So, it's been pretty phenomenal that the NBA family has expanded the amount of people that you can touch through various services through the league.
NBA.com: Talk about the league's growth in the area of community service since you've been on board.
Lanier: Well, it's not really since I've been on board, it's since David Stern has been at the helm of it. That's the reality of it. He has spearhead all of the community relations efforts, really been behind everything. I'm just glad to be able to work for an organization that has the kind of leadership we have and the commitment to community service.
Kathy Behrens [NBA executive vice president, social responsibility and player programs] has done a phenomenal job since she has been at the helm of Community Relations. She has really pushed us towards doing tremendous work at social responsibility on a global level.
NBA.com: What does it mean to receive the Mannie Jackson: Human Spirit Award from the Hall of Fame?
Lanier: I really can't put it into words. When you serve people, it's not really about awards. I'm just glad that the Lord has put me in a place that I've been instrumental in being able to assist with various causes throughout the world.
NBA.com: You just returned from South Africa and the Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg. What were some of the highlights?
Lanier: First off, we have great people that go on these trips, all from the NBA family, whether they're NBA players, WNBA players and NBA legends.
What stood out to me was the caring, the compassion in which we did stuff, the teaching -- we did a great amount of teaching basketball developmental skills. We had social responsibility seminars every day with the campers. We talked to them about leadership and making better choices and the importance of education. We took the top 60 campers in the continent of 22 countries, so it was a pretty special group.
We also did community service initiatives like going over to Cotland Center, which is a center for HIV infected for the children who have lost their parents due to HIV and AIDS. We helped plant a vegetable garden, which they will use to not only feed the kids and the grannies who help monitor the kids and take care of the kids but then they'll use it for income producing to sell to people in the community to help earn a living and they'll get seeds from it to be able to give to the grannies to plant their own gardens as well.
Then we went and built four habitat homes in a place called Ivory Park. The energy of all of the guys that participated and the people who are involved with the building who were building the house for, were there side by side, building it brick by brick. That kind of togetherness and the sweat equity that you put into it, you feel like you are a part of turning a house into a home for some lucky people.
Lastly, we went to a youth empowerment center where we built reading and learning center. We also built a dining hall that feeds over 500 kids. We built an office where we they can efficiently do their work in.
The difficulty about it -- and this is what tears your heart up -- as much as we do, the circumstances are overwhelming. It tugs at your heart and soul that as much as we do, we can even do more. So, when our players, coaches and NBA family members come over there, words cannot adequately describe the circumstances, the plight that these African kids -- the whole generation -- grow up in. They might never get out of that circumstance. Can we improve it a little bit? Yes. But a lot of them will never get out of the circumstance and the reality of it is, there is such a high spirit among the people.
What we can do is give them the resources and hope that one day they can -- maybe -- get out of the circumstance. But you don't know.
NBA.com: The trip to South Africa sounds like an emotional journey for all of the participants, especially Dwight Howard.
Lanier: Dwight Howard -- he's just special. Like most of us, he got caught up in wanting to do more and he's so animated. A few of the kids surrounded him and asked him who he was and he said, "I'm Superman!!!" And all of the kids lit up and laughed and we all laughed and he said, "I came over here to help."
That exchange between Dwight and the children really captured the whole trip in the moment. It was about fun. It was about passion. It was about caring, it was about love, it was about letting them know that we're here too, and that they lift our lives as well as us lifting theirs. That kind of captures the essence of what Basketball Without Borders is all about.
NBA.com: The commitment from the players isn't reserved for just these types of trips but a year-round effort. On Wednesday, it was reported Dwyane Wade gave an undisclosed amount of money to keep a library open in his neighborhood in Chicago.
Lanier: The reality of it is, our players are understanding better how they can use their celebrity and resources to impact mankind. They take that very seriously. Obviously, they have more resources but there is more of a commitment as well. They see a need and they're trying to address the need in a very responsible way and that makes me very proud.
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