Orlando's Adonal Foyle is the NBA player you want your children to grow up to be. Sophisticated, funny, friendly, and even a little heroic. He grew up poor in the Caribbean and is now not only an NBA player but the founder of two organizations -- one encouraging young people to be involved in politics, and another bringing crucial life skills (in a wrapper of elite basketball instruction) to some of the Caribbean's poorer areas. We recently spoke by phone, and here are eight things I learned.
Adonal Foyle initially expected Hillary Clinton to win this last election. But at some point, it became clear to Foyle and many of his NBA colleagues that Barack Obama had a surprising depth: "This was a guy who was able to speak to people in a different way," explains Foyle. "Not as a politician at first. Who could try to understand where they were coming from. Like when [Bill] Clinton went to play the saxophone on TV. [Obama's speech on race] was the crowning moment of his candidacy. Everybody knew he was black. Everybody knew he was inspiring, and could inspire hope. But that was the first time when he took a risk. And he took a risk, and went there. Most people talk about race, but they don't really want to talk about race ... He went there with some thought and in a way that people said 'wow.' Here's a guy who took this ugly moment and was able to turn it into something that we all feel."
One of Foyle's nicknames is "OD." I have heard people calling him this. OD, OD ... it is a lot easier to say that AF, I guess. But what the hell? Foyle will clear everything up: When he was new to the NBA, his teammates used to call him Jake O'Donnell. Like the referee. OD is short for that. Of course, that doesn't really clear it up at all. "There is no rhyme or reason," he says in his disarming St. Vincent and the Grenadies accent, "for NBA nicknames."
Foyle has two non-profits. One is about curing the ills of modern democracy. The other is about trying to raise a little money to build a basketball court or two back home. "I think that is quintessentially me," says Foyle. "It's good to have the lofty ideals that Democracy Matters has. But it's a long-term process of trying to get young people in the political system, changing the way we run our politics, and really trying to eliminate private money from politics. That's a really over-the-top goal. With the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, I wanted to do things that are much more practical and affect people more directly. In the Caribbean, I've been doing these camps of my own. How do you reach people who are so poor that there is a high incidence of AIDS? There is a lot of illiteracy. There are nutritional problems. There is poverty. There are not a lot of libraries. When I think about what has happened in my life, the good fortune that I have had, it has been about people caring about me, exposing me to so many different things. I believe that sports play a very important role in our society, it allows us an escape from all the ridiculous stuff. For a brief time you can just be a kid and just enjoy the simplicity of playing. The Kerosene Lamp Foundation is about that, and using that to try to talk about some of these larger social issues. AIDS in your community. How to make proper decisions that will help you. How to stay in school and read more. And also teach them basketball, nutrition ... basketball allows me the opportunity to not preach to these kids, but to use basketball as a bridge to confront all of these other social issues, and to create basketball courts where young people can play."
The Kerosene Lamp Foundation gets its name from the lighting system Foyle used to read as a child.
Around the time of the NCAA Tournament, Foyle becomes acutely aware that a big percentage of NBA players used to play for elite NCAA programs. Foyle went to Colgate (two tournament appearances all-time, zero wins) so part of being in the NBA, in March, he says, is "putting up with that crap" from teammates.
I asked Foyle to name some NBA players who took doing good deeds seriously, and he said that there were many who did a lot but did not get a lot of attention for it. Off the top of his head he mentioned Larry Hughes, Chris Duhon and Daryl Armstrong. He also points out that it takes a lot of hard work to have a sustainable non-profit: "I ask myself all the time, how can I make this viable? We all have good impulses, but it takes a lot of hard work to do good over the long run. I have full-time people at both organizations working very hard. You have no idea how hard it is just to organize the logistics of one trip for a group to the Caribbean."
One reason that Foyle thinks so much about his non-profit work, is that as soon as he made the NBA (he was the eighth pick in the 1997 draft), some of those closest to him encouraged him to decide then and there would his next career would be, after basketball.
When I talked to Foyle, he was a free agent -- having been traded from Orlando to Memphis and then cut. He was waiting to sign somewhere, which he did with the Magic. But at that moment, when he was a free agent, I asked him to handicap the race to the title, and he said he thought the East had the inside track: "Orlando has been an interesting team. ... They have been able to beat the Lakers. They have been able to beat Boston. They have been able to beat Cleveland. It has been kind of an interesting series. I think Boston kind of have the edge, but it depends who has which seed. If Charlotte can make it in I think they'll be a dangerous team, and Atlanta always seems to play great basketball in the playoffs. So I think the East will be interesting, while in the West, the Lakers have been the dominant team all year -- they have a lot of weapons, and they have Kobe. ... But I think whoever comes out of the East is going to have a really good chance of winning."
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