By Paul Meadors
One thing you need to know about NBA star and Fresno native Quincy Pondexter: he is one of the only players who signs an autograph for a child and walks away feeling like he got the better end of the deal.
Perhaps that explains the scene I saw in front of me: Quincy Pondexter sitting serenely in a courtside chair and peering admiringly at the 300 or so youngsters dribbling and shooting basketballs. Eyes focused and forehead a bit crinkled, his deeply reflective posture seems atypical of a 27-year-old basketball star in the prime of his career. He has trouble wrapping his head around what he sees in front of him and yet he recognizes the source.
“I’m undeniably blessed,” says the Fresno native and current NBA forward for the New Orleans Pelicans. “This camp has exceeded my expectations.”
You see, three years ago Pondexter had a dream of giving back to the community where he was born and raised. What started as a free, one-day camp at Romaine Park (think 95 degree heat, outside courts, few volunteers) is now a flourishing camp. One hundred kids showed up for that first event. Next year they might need an even bigger facility. Gratitude is contagious.
And for four days in late June, a sea of eager and wide-eyed kids aged K-12 packed into the two gyms at Buchanan High School wearing uniformed t-shirts with a “559” imprint and their own Globetrotter-like basketball, learning skills of the game and life-lessons from people like former Fresno State basketball star Wil Hooker, and an impressive list of coaches and NBA stars.
It was a good four days.
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart.
For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” – Luke 6:45
“I care about this city,” Pondexter says. “I care about making it better and I care about the next kid that’s going to make it from this city.” You get the feeling he means it.
Pondexter’s commitment to giving back may not be limited to basketball camps; he’s mentioned his intention of one day becoming Mayor of the City of Fresno. If this camp is a sign of things to come, let the campaign trail commence.
On this second day of camp, Pondexter’s NBA friends, including Jeff Withey, Ray McCallum, and Dorell Wright obliged and helped out where they could. But before they ever set foot in the gym, Pondexter arranged for them to gain a full experience of Fresno, which included their visiting slums, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and places where people are hurting, including Valley Children’s Hospital and the Poverello House. With Pondexter as host, his guests found themselves serving even before they were supposed to begin volunteering.
“This is a dream come true for most kids.” Pondexter said. “But the trips we do from away from the gym is what makes this camp really special.”
Withey, a current teammate of Pondexter’s and former All-American at Kansas, talked about how it warmed his heart when he was able to sign and give a basketball to a sick girl, recently discharged from the hospital. McCallum said it was a testament to Quincy’s reputation around the league as one of the good guys that NBA players are ready to come on a whim to help.
On day three, campers were treated with a visit by Pondexter’s Memorial High teammates and popular NBA stars the Lopez twins – Brook and Robin. They gave a motivational talk stressing the importance of education and goals, mixed in with some fun facts (they have been to Disneyland exactly 27 times, it turns out). Robin is known for his eccentric hair and semi-serious battles with opposing mascots (go ahead and search YouTube for the entertainment) and Brook is known for his All-star play for the Jay-Z owned Brooklyn Nets.
Afterward campers were literally dangling from Robin’s arms, legs and back while walking across the gym; a scene reminiscent of the Velociraptors attacking the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park. No worse for wear, he let it be known how wonderful it was to be back in the Valley and to help out.
“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” – Desmond Tutu
Throughout the camp’s four days a familiar mountain of a man could be seen hugging old friends, laughing and reminiscing of days long gone, making acquaintances with a firm handshake and helping with a youthful zeal unusual for a 62-year old. His name: Roscoe Pondexter, Quincy’s father and a Valley basketball legend. A former Memorial star himself and California’s Mr. Basketball in 1971, the elder Pondexter was drafted by the Boston Celtics out of Long Beach State.
Basketball pedigree and genes are all in the family, but there’s much more than meets the eye here. Their father-son relationship reaches far beyond basketball.
“I don’t think people realize how little we talk about basketball. I have a more important role than basketball: Dad,” said Roscoe. When Roscoe speaks, it suddenly becomes clear where Quincy gets his sincerity. Roscoe has been there every step of the way. He has seen his son go from high school superstar, to struggling college freshman, to all-conference Pac-10 player at Washington, to the NBA.
“My son and I would talk about work ethic but he already had that so I became more of a facilitator, teaching him how to become more of a well-rounded person,” Roscoe said. “Do your school work, be respectful to people, and value your belief in your faith.”
With Roscoe functioning as the vine of the Pondexter family tree, the branches and leaves were well represented at the camp. Quincy’s aunt, Velda Weaver, drove from Elk Grove toting six of her grand kids to the camp, all boys between 6 and 16, including two from New Orleans. Quincy’s cousin, Lowanda Gooch, brought five grandkids, making the event a mini-reunion, a cousin get-together for the ages.
“Every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be.” – educator Rita Pierson
The heart of Pondexter’s camp is the child, the most impressionable one, for whom one simple word of encouragement can become a lifelong memory. Who’s to say a high-five or hug doesn’t breathe life into a desperate situation? And who knows if there is a future NBA player among the campers, or a doctor or lawyer or teacher? Funny thing about this basketball camp; the kids show up to sharpen their skills, only to leave having discovered that there is much more to life than basketball.
The camp featured a good mix of kids, from Fresno and Clovis to outlying communities like Reedley, home of 10-year old camper Jaycee Laemmlen, who traveled with her parents John and Jodi. She said that simply meeting larger-than-life NBA players was the highlight of the camp. Jaycee proudly showed off her high socks, signed unhesitatingly by the Lopez twins.
Even older campers like Buchanan student Ardie Burton was surprised to find out how down-to-Earth all the NBA dudes were.
But for Quincy Pondexter, the man who blesses as he has been blessed, the man who understands that basketball can be a fleeting moment in life, the man who gives according to what he has been given—he sees the dreams in every kid’s eyes and the potential within every child.
“To have this much going on with the camp is truly a blessing. I just want to do my part to help the community,” says Pondexter.
And as four o’clock rolled around and after four days of 7-hour-non-stop basketball, there sat Quincy Pondexter at a table signing every last autograph and posing for every last picture. This kid of gratitude epitomizes the mantra he hopes to cling to while in the NBA and even beyond: It is more blessed to give than to receive.