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."
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