West's Service to South Phoenix Hits Quarter-Century Mark

Matt Petersen/Suns.com
by Matt Petersen

Mark West was a popular guy in the summer of 1990. The Suns’ starting center had just demolished the to the tune of 14.4 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game in the Western Conference Semifinals.

After years of seeing the team in gold bully Phoenix inside for decades, West had helped the Suns turn the table in dominant fashion, helping them “Beat L.A.” in the playoffs for the first time in team history.

Sensing he might have found an NBA home, West looked for off-court opportunities to make his presence felt just as strongly. He found one when a city official approached him with a good-natured fact and complaint.

“The Suns don’t come to South Phoenix,” she said.

“Really?” West replied with interest. “I don’t know about South Phoenix. Tell me about it.”

She did. West listened intently, then did some research himself. He realized the area featured the conditions he felt sincerely merited a community outreach.

“I wanted to do something in the area where I felt it was most needed,” West said.

One quarter century later, the big man known as “Big Daddy” is still doing it. In an ongoing partnership with The Salvation Army as well as a handful of local sponsors, West is helping run the 25th annual South Mountain Education and Basketball Camp for underserved youth. The week-long event is now held at the Salvation Army South Mountain Corps Community Center in Phoenix, a newer facility that gives an elite-camp feel to a zero-cost experience.

"I wanted to add a twist to [the camp], use the basketball as bait to teach them some life skills, some important concepts like responsibility, accountability, the importance of education."

— Mark West

That last aspect has been a non-negotiable since West helped jump-start the camp way back in 1990.

“When [kids] come, I want it to be as good as if they were paying for any high-level camp,” West remembers telling coaches and Salvation Army representatives. “I want it to be the same quality, but it’s going to be free for kids.”

“They looked at me like I’d lost my mind,” he added with a deep laugh.

They might have looked at him like that for a second, but they’ve done nothing but back West up since. The Salvation Army charges nothing for the use of their facilities, enabling West to do likewise to the 75-plus kids who attend. Local restaurants and food chains pitch in free lunches, adding food to the list of stuff-they-normally-wouldn’t-have.

Basketball is, obviously the big draw. West is frank, however, in labeling the sport as “bait” for the real reason for the camp.

“I wanted to add a twist to it, use the basketball as bait to teach them some life skills, some important concepts like responsibility, accountability, the importance of education,” West said. “The idea was that we’d bring some successful business men, educators, politicians, teachers, who grew up in this area, who came from similar backgrounds, who were successful, to talk to the kids about all those different subjects and how they applied them to their lives.”

Each day features a different theme. Responsibility. Peer Pressure. Self-esteem. Education. Those principles are emphasized by guest speakers, but they are also laced throughout the basketball portion of the day as well. West starts each day of the camp with his own pep talk centered around the day’s central focus. Coaches and other camp volunteers follow suit.

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“Every day, the coaches will be talking about it,” said West’s wife, Elaina. “[The kids will] hear about it from our speakers. We usually have one or two speakers a day. When the kids aren’t playing basketball and they’re sitting on the sideline, we try to get the coaches to talk to them about that theme.”

West has done his part to ensure the camp’s potential isn’t completely dependent on him. It isn’t named after him, and the ties of local coaches and the Salvation Army are strong enough to keep it running in the event he can no longer run it himself.

"You want to give back something they can hold onto beyond basketball. Basketball should be something they do, not who they are. The life skills and the life lessons should reflect who they are."

— Mark West

After 25 years, however, that scenario has yet to come up.

“I was hoping that it would always be a long-term thing, “ West said. “The thing was to make it the South Mountain Education Camp, to give it the moniker of South Mountain – this area. Hopefully the coaches that I would bring in here, and in particular the Salvation Army, would keep it going, that they could bring the resources together to keep it going for the sole purpose that it was made for. Ironically, even though I moved and got traded, I came back in the summers and made this my home.”

In turn, West hopes to help valley children create better homes for themselves through the lessons learned at the camp. His name and history with the Suns give some initial appeal. His goal is that the kids leave with a far more important impression in mind.

“You want to give back something they can hold onto beyond basketball,” West said. “Basketball should be something they do, not who they are. The life skills and the life lessons should reflect who they are.

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