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On a humid summer day on the Caribbean island of Dominica, 1,400 miles south of Miami, two men with rusted machetes quietly crossed an outdoor basketball court populated with young children. The children paid the knife-wielding trespassers no mind. The men were on their way to work in the rain forests, their long blades used for making trails and felling fruit from trees. The kids were more captivated by the white bus pulling up to the basketball court. Sixteen coaches and volunteers emerged, one standing 6-foot-10, with a towering physique of muscle and power. A young boy approached the enormous man, who wore the long shorts and cutoff sleeves synonymous with basketball garb.
"Are you Shaq?" the boy asked.
Adonal Foyle leaned down to the child, feigning great offense.
"I am much prettier than Shaq," he said. The child laughed and ran away from the gentle giant.
Foyle, who retired in 2010 after a 12-year NBA career, surveyed the new basketball court, set into a hillside in rural Grand Fond, Dominica. Last year his foundation refurbished the court with fresh pavement, paint, backboards and hoops. "We're going to have a lot of campers today," he said. "Let's get ready."
Boxes of basketballs, T-shirts, water bottles, children's books, nutritional pamphlets and bright orange Gatorade jugs were unloaded from the bus. Besides the boxes and containers and sporting equipment, the volunteers also unpacked the deeper messages of Adonal Foyle's Athletics & Academics Island Youth Camps: hope, equality and betterment, a trilogy of life lessons with which Foyle is extremely familiar.
The story of Adonal Foyle seems to be the stuff of a Disney screenwriting project. In 1990, two professors from Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., Jay and Joan Mandel, were in the Caribbean doing research. They saw a 16-year-old, standing almost 7 feet tall, playing in a basketball camp. He barely knew how to dribble. The kid came from the island of Canouan in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where his family had to light their home with only one kerosene lamp. The Mandels recognized the boy's potential. Within two weeks, Foyle was living with them in the United States, attending public high school. Reading and writing at the level of his peers was a challenge for Foyle, who worked tirelessly on his vocabulary and his studies. His drive and determination to learn thrived in upstate New York, and so did his basketball skills.
Foyle led his Hamilton Central High School basketball team to a 1994 state championship. That spring, he stunned the recruiters of Duke, Syracuse and just about every other basketball powerhouse by choosing to stay local. He enrolled at Colgate, which has a small but feisty Division I basketball program in the Patriot League. Foyle brought the Raiders to the NCAAs in 1995 and 1996, where they fell to Kansas and Connecticut, respectively. At the end of his junior year in 1997, the Golden State Warriors took Foyle with the eighth pick in the NBA draft. He spent 10 years with Golden State before heading to the Orlando Magic for the final two years of his career. (There was a brief, one-month stint with the Memphis Grizzlies, but he re-signed with the Magic after Memphis waived him.)
Foyle averaged 4.1 points and 1.6 blocks per game in his career, and finished in the top 10 in the league in blocks four times. Aware of education's value, Foyle continued his studies while on the road, and graduated from Colgate in 1999 with a degree in history. He is currently finishing work on a master's in sports psychology at John F. Kennedy University in California and believes that a doctorate is in his future.
Off the court, Foyle, 36, runs two charities: Democracy Matters, which encourages college students to get involved with politics; and the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, named for the beacon of light in Foyle's youth, which provides support and incentives for kids to succeed in school. The KLF funds Foyle's summer camps and essay competitions, and refurbishes neglected basketball courts in the U.S. and in the Caribbean islands.
Not bad for a kid from a tiny Caribbean island without cars, and a home without electricity. Some believe Foyle will someday serve as the president of Canouan. But for now, Foyle is happiest when he's teaching little girls how to snarl.
At the Dominica camp, more than 130 kids ages 5 to17 were bused in from nearby villages on the island, which has a population of 72,000. The youngsters were divided among the volunteers, who included professional coaches, college players and teenagers from the U.S. spending summer vacation helping others. Foyle also chose three teenagers from the island of St. Vincent to work for the camp, a reward for both their basketball and academic prowess. After all, it was here on Dominica that Foyle himself was discovered 21 years ago. But while no NBA scouts (or well-intentioned college professors) observed the day's camp, Foyle is aware that his efforts to give back are moving things forward in the Caribbean. This camp marked a positive turn: More female athletes attended than in the seven-year history of his camps.
Foyle, 36, rotated through the groups, overseeing the drills and techniques. A bunch of young ladies did drills with volunteer Jamila Veasley, who played basketball at UCLA. Foyle snatched up a ball and showed a swarm of preteen girls how to rebound.
"It's pretty to growl," Foyle insisted loudly. The key is having the confidence, quickness and fight to go after the ball, he told the girls. Putting on his game face, Foyle demonstrated, letting loose a monstrous battle cry and ferocious look while charging to the hoop to collect a rebound. The girls giggled, realizing Foyle is a gentle soul. Beneath his growl, they sensed that he was teaching them a bigger lesson: Go after what you want..
What Foyle wants is twofold: to give the kids of the Caribbean a leg up in life by touting the lessons of sports and academics. "You have to have this duality between sports and academics," Foyle said. "When we first started the camp, we wanted to find a way to connect basketball and academics. If you look at the logo of our T-shirts, it's a basketball in one hand and a book in the other. That's the metaphor and symbolism for what we are trying to do, which is to blend the athletic discipline with the schooling discipline for a life well-lived."
Fun as the camp may be, Foyle doesn't let the education factor slip past his campers. During a water break, he asked his crowd of kids what they thought the average number of career years for an NBA player was. Hands shot up. "Ten! Twelve! Fifteen years!" the kids shouted. Foyle enunciated the reality slowly: 3.7 years. He didn't mention that his career was nearly four times as long. Instead, he emphasized the importance of education, telling the kids that at the end of camp, everyone would receive books. Only some would get basketballs.
"I think that in the U.S. -- and a lot of other places -- we forget that a lot of these kids aren't going to make the NBA. We have to give them the opportunity to become well-adjusted and well-educated adults," Foyle said. The heart of his camp revolves around opportunity, which doesn't come easily in Third World nations during a global economic meltdown. While cricket, soccer and track top the ranks of sports popularity in most Caribbean nations, basketball is still relatively new. But NBA stars such as Patrick Ewing (Jamaica) and Tim Duncan (St. Croix) originally hailed from the islands, and Foyle believes the Caribbean has big potential in basketball. "We have all these big, tall guys" he joked.
Because athletics without an education doesn't mean much in the long run, Foyle provides the opportunity for both, and leads by example. "When you work with young people, you have to walk the walk as well as talk the talk," said Foyle, who continues to walk the walk as the Magic's director of player development during the NBA's regular season. In the summer, he hits the islands with his camps, preaching the good word of sports and education, with emphasis on the latter.
"I believe that knowledge is who we are ultimately," he said. "When the ball is laid to rest, and everything is done, we always rely on knowledge. I'll be happy if we [the Caribbean] have some NBA players, but I'll be very ecstatic if we have some great college players and some great kids who go to college."
For players from smaller countries with fewer opportunities, college hoops and the NBA are icing on the cake, but Foyle knows opportunity is the prime ingredient for change and development.
"I don't want everybody to play basketball," he said. "I want everybody to have the opportunity to play basketball to figure out what they like."
As for the girls of Dominica, they seem to have figured out they like basketball very much. The number of female participants has doubled from last season's camp, giving Foyle a bright outlook on the future of Caribbean women in sports.
"It is very important to empower young ladies to grow into very well-educated adults. We have had more females in our camp because we make it more accessible to them. We want them to come, we encourage them to come ... and most of the time, they are much better shooters than the boys," Foyle said. He added with a laugh: "We tell the boys, 'Get up to the standard of the ladies.'"
The secrets of a growling rebound cross into everyday life lessons for Foyle's young female campers. Being an athlete is an education in sociology, one that girls often desperately need. According to Foyle, it's a great thing for a woman to be both tough and graceful. "How you merge those things is very important," he said. "[Girls] have been taught through society that it is not OK to be physical and to be aggressive. I want them to know it is OK to be aggressive. I grew up in a house with a women's studies professor, so I know it is OK to growl as a woman, and be amazing and powerful. I think the future holds great promise for girls."
In turn, we at espnW think the future holds great promise for Adonal Foyle and will happily growl at anyone who disagrees. For more information on (or to volunteer your time for) Adonal Foyle's Athletics & Academics Island Youth Camps, please visit kerosenelampfoundation.org.