Posted Nov 26 2009 11:46AM
It would be easy for Adonal Foyle to gripe. Instead he grows.
It would be almost be natural for Foyle to complain that all he can do on the basketball floor following surgery on his right knee is hobble around and fight through the pain. Instead he focuses on making strides in life that are bigger than buckets and boards.
"Don't get me wrong, I love to throw an elbow in the paint, catch a lob pass and slam in a dunk as much as the next guy," said the 6-foot-10 Orlando Magic reserve center. "But if I'm unable to do that right now while I'm in the rehabilitation process, that doesn't mean I can't be happy and making an impact in another way."
For a veteran who has never averaged as much as six points a game in any of his 12 previous NBA seasons, Foyle's impact off the court has been huge.
Soon after he entered the league as the No. 8 pick in the Draft by the Golden State Warriors in 1997, Foyle founded a student organization called Democracy Matters that works in support of campaign finance reform in the American political system. A few years later, Foyle founded the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, with a mission to empower youth to grow into healthy and well-educated adults in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Caribbean nation where he was born.
"As athletes, we are not special because we are bigger, taller and might have significantly more money than the average person," Foyle said. "Our position in life does not make us someone who should have influence automatically. But since we do have the position, we should try to make the most of it."
Foyle grew up on Canouan, a tiny island in the eastern Caribbean with an area of less than five miles. He lived with his grandmother and a pet donkey in a house that had no electricity. He began to play basketball in his teens and eventually was raised in New York state by two American professors who became his sponsors. He attended Colgate University, where he set an NCAA record with 492 blocked shots, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in history before being drafted by the Warriors.
Foyle clowns around with kids at his 2007 camp in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
"I was excited about getting an opportunity to play in the NBA, but at the same time I wanted to do other things," Foyle said. "Why does a person have to be one thing or another? Where does it say that you cannot be an athlete and be engaged in something else?"
Foyle's cause became Democracy Matters, an effort to combat what he thought was an inaccurate label about his generation and the political system.
"All that I heard was that, 'People your age don't care about politics. They're apathetic, yada, yada, yada,'" he said. "I looked around and I said to myself that just wasn't true. If young people didn't care, why were so many of them working in soup kitchens or building houses with 'Habitat For Humanity? They care. Some of them just don't know how the system works or how it is supposed to work.
"It's not apathy that we have to work against with the younger generations. It's teaching them how to harness their collective power, to find ways to make their voices heard, to become advocates for themselves and for other people that need help in society.
"If you think about what young people hear on college campuses, you can see why they don't understand. They might hear that their elected representative comes into town for a $5,000-a-plate dinner here or does a fundraiser there. How are college kids, with all of their loans and debts, supposed to get into that system?
"With Democracy Matters, we are working toward campaign reform, where the money isn't the only thing that matters. I think we saw with the election of Barack Obama that young people can be a powerful block and influence this country."
A few years later, Foyle established the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, named as a reminder of the light by which he did his homework while growing up in his grandmother's small house.
"We use basketball and the draw of some big name NBA players as a way to get kids interested and into the program, but the true purpose is to teach them about taking ownership of their lives," Foyle said.
Current and former NBA players such as Erick Dampier, Courtney Lee, Bo Outlaw, Leon Powe and Josh Powell have traveled to St. Vincent & the Grenadines with Foyle to put on basketball clinics. While the kids are learning basketball skills, they are also given lessons in literacy, AIDS education and advancing in society.
"A lot of the kids there are like me when I was growing up," Foyle said. "I didn't have exposure to much when I was very young. I had a deficit. We didn't have electricity, didn't have indoor plumbing. I didn't have many books to read as a small child. There was nobody encouraging me to read.
"When you live here in the United States, it's hard to think of what life is like in developing countries, where kids don't have shoes and haven't been exposed to much. I had never seen an elevator before I came to the U.S. The island where I grew up had fewer than 500 people and the first high school I attended here had 3,000 students. The gap is so wide, so amazing, but it doesn't mean it can't be closed."
Foyle has carved out a journeyman's career in the NBA, never becoming a star but never failing to use whatever bully pulpit or influence he has to spread his gospel. Last season, he played a grand total of just 10 games for the Memphis Grizzlies and the Magic and, even if his rehab continues going well now and he gets back onto the floor sometime next month, that doesn't mean Foyle will get into the regular rotation with the talent-rich Magic.
That won't stop him from making his case to peers throughout the league.
"I tell them that you don't have a choice about being a role model," Foyle said. "You make that money. You have that celebrity. So you don't get to make the choice with these kids. You only get to choose whether you want to be a good role model or a bad one.
"I understand what Charles Barkley was saying with his famous comments years ago. He meant that parents, teachers, everybody are role models. In a perfect world, all kids would be looking at people like Mandela, Dr. King, Obama, poets, writers and composers, too.
"Some of them do look at those people. But a lot of them look at us, because of who we are and the advantages we've been given. That's why I think the obligation belongs to us. I find great happiness on the basketball court. But I also find happiness doing these different things at different times."
In 2007, after nearly 20 years in the U.S., Foyle was sworn in as an American citizen. Now, at this time of year, he particularly likes the notion of setting aside a specific day to count blessings at Thanksgiving.
"I like to think that we appreciate what we have all of the time," Foyle said. "Though I know we are all so busy living this hectic life, it's a good thing to stop and say thanks for what we have. That's important. So, too, is reaching out."
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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