NBA hopes for an image rebound

Philanthropic work by players in recent years is a counterpoint to recent scandals.

You probably heard about the National Basketball Association's nightmare of a summer vacation. But you probably haven't heard about the off-season exploits of Emeka Okafor, a forward for the Charlotte Bobcats.

As the new NBA season began this week, the league was dogged by lingering image problems stemming from a referee pleading guilty to betting on games for which he officiated, as well as a federal grand jury verdict against the New York Knicks after accusations that coach Isiah Thomas sexually harassed a team executive.

What failed to make headlines were stories such as that of the far-flung travels of Mr. Okafor. The young bachelor millionaire spent his summer touring hospitals and blood clinics in Africa, donating money to his alma mater, and conducting basketball clinics overseas. Not exactly your stereotypical South Beach frolics.

The NBA's reputation has taken a battering in recent years following incidents such as the Kobe Bryant assault case (which was dismissed), and the 2004 bench-clearing brawl between the Pistons and Nuggets. But Okafor and some observers say that the portrait of the NBA offered up by much of the media offers a skewed perspective because it ignores much of the league's unseen charity work. Despite regularly engaging in the sort of trash talk associated with feuding rap stars, players are often dedicated to philanthropic endeavors in their free time.

"I think that if the NBA just started doing [philanthropic projects] now as a counterpoint to what's gone on, it could be perceived as cynical," says Richard Lapchick, director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. "But they have such a history in this area."

Mr. Lapchick credits NBA Commissioner David Stern with pushing a community outreach agenda to the league's 30 franchises, including team executives and staffers, players, and corporate sponsors.

Under its NBA Cares umbrella program, the league has targeted three broad areas for contributions: education, health, and youth and family development. A five-year plan launched in 2005 aims to raise $100 million for charity; build 250 places for kids and families to live, learn, and play; and provide 1 million hours of community service.

Those broad categories leave room for players and others across the league to take on issues they are passionate about.

"Every guy has his own cause," says Okafor after a recent practice. "It just doesn't get any attention because it's good. If it's good, it's not interesting, so who wants to pay attention to it? You have 20 different people doing good things and one person doing bad things and that one person is glorified to represent the whole league."

Okafor remains committed to several outreach programs. Most prominent is his role as a spokesman for the One Million African Lives initiative. The organization has pledged to save a million lives during the next five years by working to clean Africa's HIV-tained blood-transfusion supply.

Over the summer, Okafor visited clinics in several cities and villages in Nigeria as well as in South Africa. A first generation Nigerian-American, Okafor had only visited his parents' native country twice, at age 8 and again at 16.

Going back as an adult proved to be eye-opening. "Over there, the hospital is the last place you want to go because you don't know what's going to happen," he says. He ticks off the pitfalls of African medical care: doctors who may or may not be qualified to treat patients, power outages that could disrupt or prohibit surgery or other care, and medical technology that is often decades out of date.

At least one hospital is likely to have better care: The Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa, Congo. The $29 million hospital opened this summer, thanks to years of tireless efforts by native son Dikembe Mutombo, a Houston Rockets center. Mutombo invested $15 million of his own money in the project.

Other notable good works from NBA players include a $2.5 million charitable donation to Chinese philanthropies raised by Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash and Mutombo's Houston teammate, Yao Ming. High-profile players such as Paul Pierce, Shaquille O'Neal, and LeBron James are also renowned for their philanthropic endeavors.

This week, the NBA announced a season-long program to help rebuild New Orleans. The league aims to contribute 30,000 hours of "hands-on" community service and partner with other organizations to improve the city's education and housing.

"I think athletes have at least as much responsibility as the rest of us to contribute to society," says Dave Czesniuk, director of operations at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. "But there is also a responsibility [among the leagues] to foster that."

The ethos resonates with Okafor.Beyond his work on Africa's blood supplies, Okafor also participated in a Basketball Without Borders clinic. That program was launched in 2001 with extensive NBA support, seeking to use basketball as a source for social change in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Central and South America. More than 160 former and current players and coaches have participated in the clinics. Amateur teenage players are invited to the camps, blending cultures, languages, and nationalities into a hoops-happy melting pot.

"They live together, eat together, sleep together, and play basketball together," says Todd Jacobson, NBA vice president of community relations. "They learn about each other as people with basketball as the catalyst."

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