On Friday February 11, young men and women from the New York City metropolitan area enjoyed basketball tutelage from former NBA and head coach Butch Beard, championship winning Golden State Warriors power forward Clifford Ray, WNBA players Rushia Brown, Helen Darling and Andrea Garner, as well as former Milwaukee Bucks forward Marty Conlon. Sponsored by Bridgilance, in conjunction with the NYC Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), the Big Man Clinic brought 60 players to the Frederick Douglas Academy for a series of drills, one-on-one mentorship, and the need for community activism via education on the need for minority bone marrow donors.
Though basketball legends were the catalyst for bringing the world’s attention to the need for bone marrow donors of African descent, the Big Man Clinic’s motto of “Be Big Off the Court Too” underlining the need for young athletes to internalize the idea of giving back. Former New Jersey Nets and Howard University basketball coach Butch Beard told The Shadow league how he got involved.
“I got involved after talking to Clifford Ray and Josh Blair about running a Big Man camp for young men and women. And, just trying to help them to hone their skills a little and also make them community aware of some of the things that we were talking about. It turned about to be an excellent venue for us.”
“Being a former professional athlete, you always want to try to give back to the community and the next generation. So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to get involved. Just to talk to some of the young kids and see what the younger generation is thinking. Matter of fact, I’m going to try to help one of the young ladies that were here, I’m going to try to help her get in school. After having a conversation with her, she said she’d like to go to college and I’m going to try to help her in that endeavor. I talked to her coach and we’re going to try to work on that.”
Beard also spoke of his strategy for communicating with young minds, which isn’t exactly an easy task.
“What you want to try to do is find out what’s on their minds. What are they thinking? Then, from there, all you do is try to encourage the kid and to lead them in the right way so they can follow their dream and be successful.”
With such a mind for speaking to young people, it’s a curious thing that Coach Beard isn’t coaching an NBA team or pushing a collegiate program toward March Madness. He told The Shadow League, if he had his choice, he would prefer to coach Division I basketball.
“I would like that opportunity. I would prefer at the college level because I think you can get more accomplished dealing with individuals at the college level. You can help to shape a kid’s life as opposed to in the pros. The pros is all about everybody being where they want to be, and to try to win championships. I would prefer to coach at the college level. I like helping young men and women who have aspirations to be successful and to try to help them and lead them toward that path. That’s what I do and that’s the reason why I was involved in the Big Man Clinic.”
Bridgilance co-presidents James Stephenson Burrell and Joshua Blair have stepped out and decided put their time and resources in play to give back in a way that truly matters. Joshua explained how it all went down.
“There’s a gentleman by the name of Jay Frye who is a mutual friend of mine and Clifford Ray and we had dinner down in Tampa over the summer and Cliff told me what he did as a big man coach and that started to marinate in my mind. I knew All-Star week was coming up here in New York and through much pain I learned that you have to start planning these things out way in advance. So, I called Jay and say ‘Hey, do you think Cliff would be interested in doing a big man clinic that would include a bone marrow swab component for kids in Harlem during Black History Month. So, that’s kind of how it started.”
“Clifford, being a two time cancer survivor himself, was more than happy to get on board. Since then, I’ve learned that two of his teammates have died from the type of cancer that could be cured by bone marrow transplant,” said Mr. Blair. “My son is racially mixed, I grew up playing basketball…do I need to say more? I have had teammates die young, I’ve had teammates be shot and killed with no investigation. So, when I read Michelle Alexander’s book it motivated me because, I believe everything she’s saying,” he continued. “I felt that I couldn’t make an impact on the criminal justice system, but having had this knowledge about the bone marrow donor situation in general I said “Well, let me see if I can’t make an impact there.”
Though it is sometimes difficult to connect gauge the sincerity of individuals who engage in anything these days, Mr. Burrell’s belief in the cause was apparent the moment he opened his mouth.
Personal resolve between executives at the top of an organization is often mismatched, especially so for some philanthropic endeavors. However, Burrell’s motivation, though different than Joshua’s, was equally strong.
"So, the Big Man Clinic is a tool that Bridgilance is using to reach underserved communities and to raise awareness on the issues that affect those communities. In particular, socially and economically disadvantaged people. Today, we are using the Big Man Clinic because we have friends who are former NBA legends, who are big men, who are volunteering their time to teach young people how to better their skill set in the four and five position of basketball.”
We were hoping that the tie in with the proximity of NBA All Star week would be a great way to raise awareness about blood cancer, leukemia and sickle cell anemia in our community and ways that we can help that might not necessarily be with money, but with time, with awareness and with community service.”
“The Big Man Clinic for us right now is a proof of concept to see how much awareness we can bring through a sports clinic about the underlying cause we can bring awareness to,” he continued. “We’re already working on additional Big Man Clinics. I believe there’s one we’re working on in Philly in early summer and we’re planning on broadening it to other sports. Right now we’re doing basketball, we’re planning on broadening it to football and likely baseball and some other sports.”
“I just feel too often our community doesn’t realize that we have opportunities and we need to participate in issues that affect us. We can’t wait for other people to help us. We need to be a lot more self-reliant. Things that come to mind as a youth was the crab in a barrel syndrome and this promotion of taking, taking, taking and I’m trying to work with boot strapping the idea that, if we give, we’ll all be stronger in the long run. This Big Man Clinic is free for kids and our ultimate goal is to have every dollar we receive at least 70 cent goes toward whatever organization we’re helping.”