When Kermit Washington is on one of his regular missions to Kenya, he's regarded only as a man who's there to help the sick. Nobody sees him as a former college All-America and 10-year NBA forward who, fairly or unfairly, is most remembered for throwing a punch that nearly killed Rudy Tomjanovich during an on-court brawl. "They just see a tall American," Washington says. "I like that."
The 6'8" Washington, who lives in Arlington, Va., has traveled to Africa more than 20 times over the past 10 years as the founder and driving force behind Project Contact, a nonprofit organization that provides medical treatment to impoverished peoples. The trips can be hard: He's gotten sick and he's been robbed. "You know why it happens," he says of the mugging. "It's because these people don't have anything." His volunteers usually visit for a few weeks at a time, until medical supplies run out. This summer's goal is more ambitious: Project Contact will establish its first permanent clinic providing year-round care, in the Nairobi slum of Kawangware.
That means more fund-raising for Washington, 52, who also runs predraft and summer basketball camps for big men. When he founded Project Contact (projectcontactafrica.com) in 1995, Washington provided most of the money himself, but he's had to ask for more donations over the past few years because a restaurant he owned in Vancouver, Wash., with fellow ex-Trail Blazer Kevin Duckworth went out of business in 2000. "That was the dumbest thing I ever did," Washington says of the failed venture, Le Slam Sports Caf�. "We can laugh about it now, but I have never worked so hard and lost so much money in my life." Washington is so devoted to Project Contact that he even auctioned off his Porsche to raise money for it. "The responsibility is constant, and it scares me," Washington says. "But when you can help thousands of people, you just put it on your back and try to do the best you can."