Every February, dapper college basketball coaches willingly turn from fashion dos into don'ts. They chuck their well-heeled, perfectly polished Italian shoes (the ones that match their suits to a T) in favor of sartorial splendor favored more by the retired community set: suits and sneakers.
Nationwide, tailors shudder.
But the Coaches vs. Cancer effort to raise awareness for cancer research is an integral part of the group's mission to raise $40 million for the American Cancer Society.
Now Emmanuel "Manny" Ohonme wants coaches to take their fashion plunders to even higher (or lower) levels.
The founder of Samaritan's Feet, the charitable organization that IUPUI coach Ron Hunter paired with for a goodwill visit to Peru recently, will meet with the NABC later this month in hopes of convincing coaches nationwide to spend one game patrolling the sidelines barefoot.
Along with pointing out the value of a good pedicure, Ohonme hopes the shoeless coaches will bring attention to the more than 10 million children worldwide who don't have shoes and raise 1 million pairs of shoes for their efforts.
"We all have a platform; it's a matter of how we use it," Ohonme said. "We're asking coaches to use their platform to help children."
If he pulls it off (Ohonme is targeting Jan. 17, 2009, the Saturday before Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday holiday), the barefoot display on the parquet will be just the latest effort of a 32-year-old man who turned the American dream on its ear.
Ohonme, who was born in Nigeria and received his first pair of shoes when he was 9, parlayed his basketball skills into a ticket out of Africa and into the University of North Dakota. And then he turned the opportunity for higher education into a lucrative career as a professional consultant, technology executive and entrepreneur.
He had, in the parlance of capitalism, made it.
And then Ohonme chucked it. Instead of stuffing his pockets with those fat paychecks, he quit his job to begin Samaritan's Feet.
His goal? To give every child in the world a pair of shoes.
"Along with shoes, you plant that seed of hope," Ohonme said. "I can't tell you what that means to a child."
Ohonme has been toiling for children for four years, but when Hunter signed on to coach a January game against Oakland barefoot, the philanthropist finally got his launching pad into the limelight.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Dr. King's death, Hunter wanted to collect 40,000 pairs of shoes. By tip-off, he had more than 110,000.
Thanks to Hunter, by summer Samaritan's Feet shipped more than 200,000 pairs of shoes to Nigeria, where IUPUI players and coaches planned to distribute them last month. But when
safety concerns scuttled the trip and rerouted the team to Peru, Hunter quickly rounded up 3,000 additional pairs to distribute there. The 200,000 remained in Africa, where Samaritan's Feet staff will distribute them later this year.
The donations haven't stopped pouring into Hunter's office, and Ohonme hasn't stopped dreaming up bigger and better ways to draw attention to his cause. In October, as part of a partnering effort with NASCAR, he will walk barefoot from Charlotte to Atlanta, covering nearly 300 miles in two weeks. He'll stop in Athens, Ga., for the the University of Georgia's homecoming game against Vanderbilt on Oct. 18 and finish up at Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Pep Boys Auto 500 on Oct. 26. He hopes to collect more than 300,000 pairs of shoes and is calling for a World Walk on Oct. 25, asking people around the globe to walk 1 mile beginning at noon ET.
"My friends tell me, 'Now you've done it, Manny. Now you're really gone crazy,'" Ohonme said. "But you have to put a face to the problem so people understand."
But if the faces (or the feet) belonged to Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams and their ilk, Ohonme knows they would carry more weight than his own. On college campuses, basketball coaches reign supreme, their actions covered by news outlets and observed by a college population of 18- to 22-year-olds.
"To me, it makes perfect sense," said IUPUI assistant coach Austin Parkinson. "Basketball and sneakers, you need sneakers to play. It's the perfect way to call attention to this."
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Samaritan's Feet organization, check out the Web site.