Getting Beneath the Surface

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

When the press release came across my email, my initial reaction was "Wha?!" Right Guard was teaming up with the Salvation Army to put on a fantasy basketball camp for kids living in shelters. The lede in the press release read, "The Right Guard Fantasy Camp puts the ball in the hands of those that are less fortunate, allowing them to dribble, pass and shoot like the pro." At first blush, I thought the release was a parody -- it certainly wouldn't be the first of the weekend. It's not that a dribble game and a proper defensive stance don't have practical value in the real world, but you figure those things rank behind adequate housing and jobs for their parents.

The event's principals are Lenny Wilkens, Otis Birdsong, and Ron Harper. They invited 18 kids living in shelters in the Phoenix area to participate in Saturday drill sessions at Grand Canyon University. Most of the kids live with their families at the Salvation Army-Kaiser Family Shelter. Right Guard and The Dial Corporation are sponsoring the event.

After the kids have an impromptu shootaround waiting for the event to start, they take to the bleachers and Birdsong greets them. Birdsong was a pro's pro when he played for the K.C. Kings, then New Jersey. He finished his career with 12,000+ points, shooting over 50% from the field -- a serious accomplishment for a 6' 3" guard.

Birdsong is still a pro's pro -- as a pitchman. After briefly introducing himself to the campers, the first thing he does is thank Right Guard. He tells the kids, "I use Right Guard, have always used Right Guard. I used to use the aerosol, but now I use Right Guard Sport. My wife likes it."

At this point, I want to understand the larger context of the event. I'm generally not someone who gets indignant when corporations do charitable work for reasons ranging from altruism to transparent PR. Corporations are corporations. They factor every decision through a financial calculus. If you try to characterize them as evil or good, you'll drive yourself crazy. Would I be more comfortable if a former NBA star weren't pitching deodorant to kids who don't have homes? You bet. Would it be preferable if the Dial Corporation, headquartered in Scottsdale, gave a job to every parent of these kids who needs one, which would afford the families the opportunities to get out of the shelter and back into homes of their own? Absolutely. Is it something I'm going to get overly upset about? Nope.

I ask Daniel Valdez, the activities coordinator of the Kaiser Family Center, about the question of priorities. Valdez deals directly with the kids every day, and one of his primary functions is making sure that their time living in the shelter is as pleasant as possible. Valdez tells me that he appreciates that jobs and housing rank ahead of ballhandling and rebounding, but he lays out the reality of a family who checks in the facility.

"When the parents check in, they have two weeks to find a job," says Valdez. "What I do is keep the kids out of the parents' hair, so they can focus on getting those jobs."

Valdez sets the scene: You're a struggling parent. Whether it's the economic crisis, a health problem, or bad luck, you can't pay the rent, and you're evicted from your place. The first thing you have to do is tell your kid to pack up his stuff, because the family is moving to a shelter. In many cases, your kid is devastated and upset at the idea of moving into a facility. You feel like you've failed your kid on every level. You can't provide him with something as basic as housing. Now you have to set out to find a job -- a near-impossible task in this economy -- while tending to your kid in what's probably the lowest moment of his childhood.

I speak to one boy, 13-year-old Franscisco Hernandez, who initially told his mother that he wouldn't check into the shelter. "I didn't want to leave my friends. I didn't want to be a new person again." Francisco's mom has a heart condition and was unable to maintain a job because she had been in and out of the hospital. She knew that the shelter was her only option, but told Valdez that Francisco wouldn't budge. If she and her son were going to check in, then she needed Valdez to sell Francisco on the idea.

"These parents are trying to find jobs, which is hard. They're busy. They might not have time to teach them everyday things while that's going on," says Valdez. In that respect, this event is as much for the parents as it is for their kids. For a single day, they feel like they've given their kids something material. The morale of the entire community within the shelter is lifted.

When I ask Valdez if he was weirded out by the Right Guard pitch, he shrugged. He tells me in not so many words that he doesn't have the luxury of cynicism. The work he has to do to is too hard, but today it's a cinch -- the kids are loving every drill. To Valdez, Birdsong is an assist guy of the highest order, regardless of whether he's an aerosol or roll-on man.