It is early March 1996. The scene is Colgate University—a small, private liberal arts institution tucked away in the tiny village of Hamilton, NY—located nearly an hour southeast of Syracuse. With another harsh winter gripping tightly to the region, the school seeks refuge in the men’s basketball team’s Patriot League Tournament final matchup with Holy Cross. Tip-off is in a few hours, and Adonal Foyle is focused.
The All-American center’s pregame conversation isn’t about the Raiders’ offensive sets or defensive assignments. There are no basketballs in the room. In fact, Foyle isn’t in the gym.
A short walk from the court, Colgate philosophy professor Coleman Brown is coaching up Foyle on the intricacies of the Civil Rights movement. Foyle is engaged in a spirited discussion with one of the teachers he admires most. He would rather talk about the March on Washington than March Madness. The passionate exchange lasted long enough for him to miss the team’s shootaround.
“I remember coach (Jack Bruen) sitting there and looking at me,” Foyle said. “I expected to get destroyed. I begged for his mercy. All he said was, ‘I’m telling you right now that you better win this game tonight!’”
Foyle listened. He gave Bruen a triple-double of 22 points, 15 rebounds and 10 blocks. Only a sophomore, he also added 6 assists to reassure victory for the Raiders and a second consecutive berth in the NCAA tournament. Foyle learned his lesson. He still enjoys being educated. A love for knowledge has shaped the man into more than a retired and respected NBA veteran.
The on-court success and off-court accomplishments were never a thought in Foyle’s adolescent mind. He dreamed of being a judge one day, wearing a robe similar to those worn by British parliament. But the path to any career was met with endless obstacles growing up on the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. It is where his real education began.
The condition of basketball courts in Canoun where Foyle grew up was unconventional, yet predictable. Iron rims were attached to telephone poles. Backboards would occasionally tip over. The roads where games were played had a collection of holes. Contests were halted briefly for passing cars. Flood lights kept games going into the night.
To Foyle, these games were his first basketball memories. As a teenager, he occasionally put his schoolwork on hold to play in the neighborhood.
“My mom would be calling out, ‘You better not be going to the court again! You better get your homework done!’” Foyle said.
At 15, Foyle began to play basketball competitively. His shoe size matched his age, and it was difficult to find sneakers that fit. He would bust through the soles, but use cloth and scotch tape to keep his kicks together. Foyle also remembers spraining his ankles, and with no medical staff on hand, returning home to face his displeased mother.
Education was important to the Foyle family. Career opportunities on the islands were minimal. In the summer of 1990, Jay and Joan Mandle witnessed this. The Colgate University professors were officiating a summer tournament in Union Island when they identified a remarkably raw Foyle.
“Adonal was on the team from Union Island, and it was a rag tag group of players,” Jay said. “They only won one game the entire tournament. My eye went to Adonal for a couple reasons. He stood out because he was younger. He was a fantastic athlete, but he had no basketball skills.”
The Mandles’ son, John, was accidentally watching Foyle, too. John was tasked with video taping games and monitoring referees. The tournament served as a training opportunity for up-and-coming officials aiming to work at higher levels of the game. Somehow, the camera would always find Foyle.
“Johnny would say, ‘Did you see the Chief?’” Jay said. “I was wondering what Johnny was talking about, until I saw the tapes. I realized that he was following Adonal and he reminded Johnny of Robert Parish.”
Before leaving the island, the Mandles had a choice to make. They decided to approach Foyle about coming to the United States. The top priority was delivered at the outset. Studies would come first.
“Education on Union Island was extremely limited, to put it as nicely as a I can,” Joan said. “We checked with the school, and we knew he was a nice boy. He didn’t do well in school, but he had potential. We took a chance on him.”
“I thought it was the craziest idea ever,” Foyle said. “I remember going back home and trying to convince my mother. I was convinced that I wanted to do it.”
Foyle was allowed to join the Mandles in the States, and he enrolled in Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia for the first year. His priorities were briefly flipped. The basketball coaches were diligent in getting Foyle acclimated to the sport. Academics took a back seat. Joan soon realized that Foyle was less educated than they thought.
When they moved Foyle to Hamilton (NY), a smaller high school setting in a quaint community was more than ideal. The Mandles tutored Foyle for hours every day after school, and they quickly saw growth. Foyle was fascinated with English. His speech was so fast many classmates said he was speaking “Caribbeanese.” Once Foyle mastered articulation, government became his favorite class.
“My parents were grilling me on the weekends, making sure I was doing well,” Foyle said. “I was getting extra homework. It was nightmarish at times. There were more expectations of me, especially from colleges.”
The progression in the classroom matched his play on the court. Foyle led Hamilton to its first two state championships, and he was selected as a McDonald’s High School All-American. As a senior, he would graduate with honors. His basketball and academic acumen was an alluring combination for major Division I programs. A couple of Foyle’s top suitors were Duke, Syracuse and Michigan. Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim visited Foyle at the Mandles’ house. In his heart, Foyle knew a local institution like Colgate was the right fit.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to go to a place that would treat me as a student-athlete in every sense of the word,” Foyle said. “I wanted to have a college degree. I was certain I wasn’t going back to the Caribbean without one. I wanted to be the first person in our village or town to just go to college.”
Foyle continued to flourish at Colgate. The Mandles helped him identify good classes with great teachers. Jay is an economics professor at the university, while Joan taught sociology and anthropology. Foyle took an array of courses, from poetry to drama. With an increasingly curious mind, the burgeoning big man always asked questions and initiated thoughtful conversations.
“I had amazing teachers,” Foyle said. “I embraced the liberal arts. I enjoyed the journey, not only getting to know your professors, but what it brings out of you with that passion for learning.”
Colgate’s basketball program was also fortunate to have Foyle on its roster. The Red Raiders won two Patriot League championships. Foyle averaged 20.4 points, 12.7 rebounds and 5.7 blocks per game in his three-year college career. He left college as the NCAA’s career leader in blocks with 492 (he now ranks third all-time). He recorded four career triple-doubles and six games with 10 or more blocks.
An intimidating presence at 6-10, Foyle blossomed into an NBA Lottery pick. He left Colgate after his junior season and was drafted eighth overall by Golden State in 1997. A rise to the pros didn’t distract Foyle from keeping his promise, though. He graduated magna cum laude two years later from Colgate with a degree in history.
“He learned to learn,” Jay said. “That was a very important skill that didn’t come that easily, but he was so strongly motivated.”
Foyle spent the majority of his 13-year NBA career in Golden State. He gave the Warriors 10 seasons with his best campaign coming in 2000-01. The serviceable center averaged career highs in points (5.9), rebounds (7) and blocks (2.7) per game that season. The most impressive development came off the court. Foyle found a new home in the Bay Area, and continued to read at an obsessive rate.
“I read everything that I can find,” Foyle said. “There’s poetry out there, and I write my own. Nothing changed for me when I went to the NBA. The money I made supported my habit to buy more books. It fed the beast of my addiction. I just love to learn.”
Contrary to popular belief, Foyle identified a number of NBA players who also owned a penchant for reading. He gravitated toward political discussions, but he engaged several of his hardwood peers over a variety of topics.
“Pat Garrity has such a brilliant mind,” Foyle said. “He was always reading a book. I always asked what he was reading, we’d talk about it and respectfully disagree at times. JJ Redick is a big reader and writes. He’s very religious. I like to find out where [players’] interests reside and where they feel comfortable having a discussion. A lot of guys are really brilliant.”
The affinity for education served as a catalyst for Foyle’s community service work on the West Coast. He was chosen for the NBA’s Community Assist Award five consecutive years and selected to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. His influential action also made him an exceptional choice as the NBA’s First Vice President in the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA).
“A lot of lessons came from that,” Foyle said. “Some of the most powerful people like David Stern and Billy Hunter…you’re going to learn about the art of negotiating and how they ask questions. We had a significant role to educate the next generation of players.”
When Foyle retired from the NBA in 2010, he also resigned from his post with the NBPA. He called the executive committee tenure with the NBPA one of the most valuable experiences of his life. Other players watched his actions with genuine interest.
“I was able to work closely with him and observe first hand just how incredibly intelligent he really is,” said Etan Thomas, a former NBA veteran and fellow NBPA committee member. “His level of intellect is impressive. He was and is extremely well versed and educated on the intricate details necessary to be able to prepare for labor negotiations. He could teach a class on how to know the business of the business you’re in. I’ve always had much respect for him.”
The NBA gave Foyle bountiful opportunities. But to feel fulfilled, Foyle went beyond being an activist at the local level. He took his vision nationally and globally. The education he continued to collect set the stage for today’s vital work.
In 2001, Foyle created Democracy Matters, a non-partisan organization encouraging students to have a voice in the conversation about issues with democracy. Between 60-70 chapters have been implemented on college campuses with the primary focus on conflicts in campaign finance reform.
“Money can’t equal free speech,” Foyle said. “That can’t be the intention for democracy. People are starting to understand the money and actual policies. The money is buying access and favors.”
Joan Mandle has been involved with the organization since its inception and serves as its executive director. She travels across the country and invites students to share their perspectives and get educated on a growing national problem.
“This is a very cynical and alienated nation in terms of politics,” Joan said. “We’re here to reinvigorate students to be politically engaged. Students must understand that democracy can’t be healthy unless they participate all the time.”
Five years after Democracy Matters was launched, Foyle started the Kerosene Lamp Foundation. This non-profit organization empowers children from the Caribbean and United States to develop a skill set that will help identify their true potential. Along with a basketball camp component, there are programs designed for education, mentorship and leadership. Foyle said a number of current and former NBA players have participated in the foundation’s program, including Courtney Lee, Leon Powe and Bo Outlaw, among others.
“I always thought being able to express your thoughts and desires is the highest calling,” Foyle said. “When you speak, you have a chance to tell people what you believe.”
Foyle continues to read and has blossomed into a writer. He released a children’s book titled “Too-Tall Foyle” chronicling his life experiences. With tired knees, Foyle doesn’t play basketball anymore, but a return to the NBA in a front office position is a viable option. Upon retirement, Foyle became the Orlando Magic’s director of player development and held the role for two years. Following the firing of Magic general manager Otis Smith in 2012, media reports indicated that Foyle interviewed for the job, which he confirmed.
“I’d like to learn the art of it,” said Foyle of being a GM. “You have to see the game as a player and see the business aspect through management. I love basketball and in the right situation, I would love to advance the game.”
Foyle turns 40 next March. He admits that he still has plenty to learn and achieve. The Mandles are more than amazed with how the Caribbean center is determining his legacy.
“The desire to learn is still there,” Jay said. “Twenty years later, he still has the same passion to master what he doesn’t know.”
The unanswered questions enliven Foyle every day. He wants to teach his children how to play the game that changed his life. The missions of his two organizations are bringing visibility to global concerns. He hopes someday that the money and politics discussion becomes the Civil Rights issue of today’s generation. Foyle is more than qualified to teach what he’s learned.
“I think there’s so much yet to accomplish,” he said. “We need to find a way to take our children and create more leaders. There are still so many things to keep fighting for.”
photos via Colgate University Athletics, Democracy Matters and Getty Images.