Pro basketball is a sport whose season closely approximates the school year, and perhaps that's why so many NBA players tend to act like children. For them, summer vacation is customarily that period when they can do all the exciting things they don't have time for during the season. For instance, they can demand to have their contracts renegotiated. Or they can endorse auto accessory shops. But if a pro player is lucky enough to be both rich and famous, he can open his own summer basketball camp and gouge a few middle-class families for a lot of money teaching their kids things like passing, defense and teamwork—all disciplines the pro player probably abandoned years ago.
However, there have been some exceptions. Atlanta's Mike Glenn has run free camps for hearing-impaired players on Long Island for the past three years, and Tiny Archibald of the Celtics operates free youth-development programs in New York and Boston. And then there was the third annual free Mychal Thompson/Osborne Lockhart Basketball Camp, which ended Aug. 6 and which differed from most camps in a number of ways, not the least of them being the opening ceremonies. Two members of the Bahamian parliament were there to deliver words of encouragement to the 400 or so children from New Providence Island who had shown up.
The arriving campers wore a dizzying array of footwear. Some were shod in sturdy leather brogans, others in sandals, many in gym shoes they received free at the camp last year, and a few were barefoot or wearing only socks. The 24-piece Bahamas Boys' Brigade Band played a touching rendition of Get Involved., then Perry Christie, the Bahamian Minister of Tourism, began his remarks by describing Thompson as "one of the greatest Bahamians ever born." Christie might have been guilty of skimping a bit in his praise of Lockhart, who plays for the Harlem Globetrotters, but it was Thompson whom the government approached with the idea of a camp and Thompson who kept it going. He had become an instant national hero when the Blazers made him the first pick in 1978's NBA draft, and his popularity had continued to grow each time he returned to the islands. Now the Minister of Tourism was listing all of Thompson's accomplishments, concluding with the new $1.2 million-a-year contract Portland had just given him. "Sweet Bells Thompson did more for this country with basketball," Christie finished grandly, "than Neil Armstrong did for America by walking on the moon."
The Bahamian government hopes that future Mychal Thompsons will be discovered in camps such as this one, and that they will go forth into the world saying, "It's better in the Bahamas." "Whenever you bring out one diamond," Christie says, "there must be others, too."
The messages of political progress through sports are everywhere in the Bahamas. The cover of the Nassau phone directory exhorts SPORTS POWER, which is meant to reach out and touch someone. "The Bahamas, by its very nature, can never be an industrial power, a financial power or a military power," says Kendal Nottage, the Minister of Youth, Sports and Community Affairs, "but we can be a sporting power. One athlete from the Bahamas competing in the Olympic Games can beat Russia, beat the United States. We approach sports in the Bahamas as an integral part of our overall national development. We're not interested in the professor who can teach philosophy in the classroom but can't run a lap in track or shoot a basketball."
But there's a long way to go. "I get up every morning and run for an hour and a half on the beach," says Pablo Adderley, 22. a star of the Nassau playgrounds. "I tell you true, mon, I don't know where I get all dis energy to play all day. All I do is work out, work out, work out, and then there ain't nothin' happenin'. Dis place is like a lost island."
The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is an archipelago of some 700 islands and cays that stretch across 100,000 square miles in the iridescent waters of the Atlantic. But nowhere on any of these beguiling islands is there as much as one wooden basketball floor. Most courts are outdoors and made of asphalt, and what few gyms there are tend to have concrete floors overlaid with a thin sheet of rubber. When the Bahamian government decided more than 10 years ago to construct some indoor basketball surfaces, the islands were still under British colonial rule. So architects from England designed the floors. "We're 60 miles off the coast of the United States," Thompson says, "and they have a bunch of Englishmen build their basketball floors. That's like hiring Americans to design cricket fields."
Although the camp and his own popularity give Thompson a certain amount of leverage, it hasn't helped him persuade the Bahamian government to start a building program. "These Bahamians are so talented in sports," he says, "but they don't have the facilities. Compare the Bahamas to Cuba. Castro is crazy about sports, and look how successful Cuba has been. Our government is too narrow-minded to see what's needed, or it just doesn't care." The thing that seems to bother Thompson most is the absence of a proper floor. "You play in even high school gyms in the States and you get spoiled," he says. "In America every neighborhood has a decent gym, and in this whole country we don't have one."
It isn't uncommon in the Bahamas to see great leapers on the asphalt playgrounds, players like the 5'9" Adderley, who can dunk with two hands and easily block taller players' shots. "On a wood floor, mon," says Pablo, "I could jump over the moon." As it is, he's often unable to make proper cuts because of the fine layer of sand that covers the outdoor courts. Last year he nearly broke an ankle trying to make a sudden move on a rubber-covered indoor surface. The prospect of serious injury is never far from a player's mind. In the Bahamas there's a saying, "If you like it, let it kill you." If you like basketball too much, it just might.
Nottage, a 42-year-old lawyer, insists that the government is moving toward constructing a multi-use arena with a wooden basketball floor. Meanwhile, on the government's priority list, basketball comes after track and softball.