News of NFL quarterback Brett Favre's sexting scandal had just hit. Kermit Washington picked up the phone to discuss the National Basketball Players Association's role in promoting Make a Difference Day, Oct. 23.
Eventually, conversation did get around to the national day of volunteering. But first, the news of that morning: a pro athlete, his bad behavior and the damage done to his career, his image, his sport.
Well, think about it. On what morning lately has that not been a hot topic?
"People want to put bad things in the paper about ballplayers," Washington says.
The former NBA all-star might as well have been commenting on his own career. During an in-game fight more than 30 years ago, the 6-foot-8 forward, then a Los Angeles Laker, punched and nearly killed Houston Rocket Rudy Tomjanovich.
"For every bad thing a ballplayer does, there are 10 good things they do behind the scenes," Washington says. "You don't hear about a lot of the good things we do."
Not exactly true. For example, for the last four weeks USA WEEKEND Magazine, an organizer of Difference Day, has published full-page articles authored by NBA stars such as Arizona Sun Steve Nash and L.A. Laker Derek Fisher. These pieces, elements of the participation in this year's program by the league's NBA Cares outreach effort, detail the ballplayers' off-court community service and encourage readers to sign on for volunteer projects on Oct. 23.
An official liaison between the active players' branch and the retired players' branch of the NBPA, Washington knows well the mutual benefits of such high-profile partnerships. "It's karma: What you give, you get back," is how the player-turned-philanthropist sums up the synergy, not publicity, leading to Saturday. Then he empties the bench: "Kobe, Steve Nash, Dwayne Wade, Shaq, LeBron — they all help out."
Those names get your attention. And that's the point. Celebrities help causes break through the white noise of everyday life. Now in its second decade, Difference Day has achieved its longevity, in part, by leveraging fame for good. Past partners have ranged from the NASCAR Foundation to Good Morning America to Kelly Ripa.
Washington's role as enlightened athlete may strike longtime fans of the game oddly. Despite his nearly 15 years in the pros, his "mistake in judgment," as he calls his transgression, shadows him.
It happened when he was 26. And like many people who have had a long time to process a "mistake," at 59 he has come to peace with it.
"My life never changed from what I wanted to accomplish," he says. "My dreams came true."
That may sound like the egotistical validation of a player who never grew out of his shorts — until he goes on to talk about exactly where those dreams have led him.
"Nairobi. The slums. It is really, really bad. You would be shocked, scared to death, if you were there."
Not exactly the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. But since 1995, when Washington founded Project Contact Africa, the Kenyan capital has been the focus of his considerable charitable activities. Funded largely with his own money, and staffed by American volunteers, the center now offers food services, medical outreach and schooling.
Current players, some with images in need of a touch-up, have been major supporters. None, he insists, mistakes a trip to Nairobi for a week in reputation training camp. It is the real deal.
Ron Artest, for example. Washington acknowledges that people think this L.A. Laker, his personal friend, is "crazy some of the time. But Ron not only went over to Africa, he paid for an operation for a kid. It was a very expensive operation. That kid would not have been able to have it if Ron had not paid for it."
That's more than pocketbook philanthropy, Washington says. "You don't go to places like this to impress people. You can die any second! Artest goes because he likes to give, not because of the press. You have to go with him, and the other ballplayers, to see how he sits with the kids. You can tell."
Washington also provides an assist to active players. Part of his job with the NBPA is running seminars on life issues such as health, drugs and retirement planning, which — who knew? — are mandatory. "There's a $25,000 fine if they don't come."
It's easy to imagine LeBron James flinging spitballs at the "old man" as he outlines the benefits of Roth IRAs. "Mostly they're respectful," Washington says.
But just in case you ever wondered if playing in the NBA is anything at all like real life, Washington cautions, "We know the ones who don't want to be there will be the ones who will be broke a few years after playing, if they don't pay attention: no shady investments; watch those 401(k)s."
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