The summer campers eyes widened when one of the most visible figures in sports media told them he’d been left behind in school – twice.
He might be a $3 million outspoken ESPN personality today, but after failing third and fourth grades, Stephen A. Smith was just another adolescent knucklehead -- and “the laughingstock” of his Queens neighborhood.
But hard work -- in summer school after the first failure, then picking up a love of reading about sports after the second failure -- propelled Smith to not only remain on pace with his classmates, but it helped him become the smooth-voiced, loud-talking sports talk show host sometimes referred to as “Screamin’ A.”
(ESPN's Jay Harris and Stephen A. Smith, Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
“It was at that moment that I sat there,” Smith told campers, “and I said, ‘no one will ever laugh at me again.’ ”
Great failure can lead to great success
That was one of the tenets repeated last week at the 33rd annual Achievements Unlimited Basketball School, held in Indian Trail, N.C., just southeast of Charlotte.
On the morning that Smith spoke, he was joined by ESPN analyst Jay Harris, former NBA star-turned-analyst Bruce Bowen and Fox Sports South senior vice president and general manager Jeff Genthner.
Earlier in the week, golfer Harold Varner III, winner of the 2016 Australian PGA Championship, reiterated the importance of accountability and keeping a tight circle of trusted influencers.
Also, Charlotte Hornets star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist discussed overcoming stuttering and the loss of his father at a young age to become a star on an NCAA national championship team at Kentucky and the second overall pick on the 2012 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist serves up the salon treatment with this facial. Visit nba.com/video for more highlights.
The dozen or so speakers also included heads of security from two NBA teams and two honchos from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department who delivered strong anti-drug messages.
“What we’ve tried to do is put role models -- from all walks of life -- in front of them in a daily basis,” said camp co-founder Fred Whitfield, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Charlotte Hornets.
“Whatever drives them, whatever they have a passion for, that’s what they should pursue to be successful…”
Using “basketball as a hook,” Whitfield said, the camps reminds youths that “they can become professionals in occupations other than basketball.”
Did we mention basketball?
“I came down to participate in Fred’s camp back in 1991 and got a chance to write about it for The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine,” said Garry D. Howard, Director of Corporate Initiatives at American City Business Journals. “It was such a wonderful experience, and I even got to play in the Greatest Pickup Game with none other than Michael Jordan. Loved it so much that I coached for the next 15 years and even brought my nephew down to the camp for at least 8 years.
(Garry D. Howard, Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
“The value system was what intrigued me the most about Achievements Unlimited. Fred has done a wonderful job over the past 33 years with his camp and has touched thousands of lives,” said Howard, who played college basketball at Lehigh University and is a former president of the Associated Press Sports Editors and former chairman of the Sports Task Force for the National Association of Black Journalists.
The precision tutelage continues
The kids last week received top-notch skills instruction from more than a dozen coaches and former athletes, participated in competitive pickup games and some won pairs of Jordan's in impromptu 3-on-3 basketball games -- or a Nike hat by correctly spelling words from a vocabulary list they were given on Monday morning.
The kicker: in this day and age where some athletes are charging more than $1,000 for camp participation, three-fourths of these participants, aged 7 to 14-plus, attended for free.
Life lessons. Basketball. In North Carolina.
Trendy Jordan brand products on the feet of nearly all camp coaches and staff.
Is this the Michael Jordan of basketball camps?
Close to it.
(Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
The Achievements Unlimited Basketball School actually did feature His Airness himself for 28 years.
For Whitfield, widely known as a longtime member of Michael Jordan’s inner circle, the seeds for the camp began to germinate during summers attending the prestigious Campbell Basketball School, in Buies Creek, N.C., from age 8 to 18 years old.
The school, operating since the '50s and believed to be the first summer camp solely dedicated to basketball, allowed Whitfield to develop friends with top basketball players from around the country and to be mentored by some of the nation’s top coaches.
The legendary John Wooden, UCLA’s Wizard of Westwood, and Press Maravich, whose son Pete Maravich became one of the game’s biggest stars, were two of Whitfield’s early influencers.
Then in the summer of 1980, after Whitfield had returned to become a star player at Campbell University, he worked as a counselor with a camp group that included Jordan, then a high school star, but not nationally known like today’s social media and Youtube future one-and-doners.
The two became lifelong friends.
What is lesser known about Whitfield is that he has long been an education aficionado, holding a bachelor’s in economics and master’s in business administration from Campbell – before completing his law degree at North Carolina Central University in Durham.
He has since become a practicing attorney, sports agent, salary cap czar (Washington Wizards) and Brand Jordan executive, helping the fledgling brand rise from a $300 million brand when he started to $900 million when he left. Brand Jordan is now worth $3 billion, Whitfield said.
“When I look back on my whole career, I realize very quickly that it all goes back to education,” Whitfield told campers, “which is why you got your dictionary (in camp goody bags), which is why you got your vocabulary words...
“Without getting that education, that my mom and dad pounded me on every day, every day, every day, there’s no way I’m sitting in the seat that I’m sitting in right now.”
(Fred Whitfield, Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
The camp started in 1985 when Whitfield was about to enter law school. He and four friends – Jordan, Virginia alum Ralph Sampson and Duke’s Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson – created the camp in Whitfield’s hometown of Greensboro, N.C., with hopes of getting some of the same successes that Whitfield saw as an adolescent in Buies Creek.
With a strong emphasis toward under-served communities, the goal was to mold not just good athletes, but good people – doctors, lawyers, teachers.
And AU Basketball School was born. The AU part of the initials, Whitfield revealed last week, borrows from the Greek letters of his fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi, represented as KAU.
“It’s a secret, kind of,” Whitfield said last week, before the revelation, which came in a question and answer session during the camp’s closing day.
“Part of that fraternity’s real push and mantra has to do with achieving things. And I’ve always felt that if you do what you need to do, your ability to do great things would be unlimited. So that’s really how I came up with the name, Achievements Unlimited.”
Another deeply personal piece that remains a part of the camp today is the primary reason Whitfield started the camp.
“By the time I was 23, half of the 12 players that played with me as an 8 year old were dead,” Whitfield told campers. “They were dead. They were dead because of drugs. Either they O.D.ed, or they were dealing drugs and got killed. … So from day one, we’ve always had an anti-drug message…”
The camp’s companion, the HoopTee Celebrity Golf Classic, was later also established in Greensboro -- and both eventually followed Team Jordan to Charlotte.
Whitfield said that HoopTee, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last week, allows his friends from the NBA and NFL to help him raise money to allow as many kids as possible to attend the camp for free.
Whitfield said AU now has served more than 10,000 kids, a little under 200 a year, pared down from past summers when it entertained 300 to 400 kids each summer.
(Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
Michael Jordan was a constant for most of the camp’s run, participating “for 28 straight years,” Whitfield said.
But Jordan surmised about five years ago that it was time to pass the baton to a new generation.
“He said, ‘You know what Fred, it’s passed me by, because they don’t even know who I am… You should get young guys in to come in and speak,’ ”
The new faces include players such as Kidd-Gilchrist, Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul.
One recent camper, Kyin Healey, 16, who has been attending for nine years, making the trip from the Philadelphia area with his father, Kelvin Healey, a camp counselor, said his highlight was seeing another star, nurtured right in Charlotte.
(Kelvin Healey, Photo Credit: LaVelle Productions)
“The highlight was Cam Newton,” Kyin Healey, MVP of the camp’s NBA Division (14-plus) said of the Carolina Panthers quarterback.
So no, MJ will not be at next year’s camp either, Whitfield said emphatically in response to a question from a camper.
“All I can do,” Whitfield said, “is say thank you to him for giving us enough foundation that we can continue to do this camp as long as we want to.”