(DISCLAIMER: This post may cross the line from sports commentary to social commentary. I am surprised it has not happened sooner, but I will let you be the judge.)
Martin Luther King Day. To most of America, this day means an unexpected, post-holiday three-day weekend. Not to me. Martin Luther King, Jr is as close to a “hero” as I claim to have. In my opinion, no man has stood up against seemingly impossible odds with more class, more dignity and more effectiveness than Dr. King. His messages, despite their apparent religiosity, are genuinely human and universally moral, just and inspiring. His day is a day in which we–as Americans of all colors–ought to think about how we treat one another and, more importantly, why we may do so. That is all Dr. King would ask of us.
The 1960’s were a time of social unrest and essential change in the United States. Now, four decades later, new wars must be waged in a shrinking world. The human atrocities to many of the world’s citizens are coming to the forefront, just as the atrocities to many of America’s citizens did in the turbulent times in which Dr. King was a ray of hope and a warrior for justice.
This year marks the 40th anniversary (for lack of a better term) of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. There will be many sad memorial services and nostalgic, optimistic celebrations of his life’s accomplishments as we draw closer to the actual day, April 4, but tonight, one man will take Dr. King’s message of hope, inclusion and public service and use it in his own arena–a sports arena.
Ron Hunter, the head coach of the IUPUI men’s basketball team, will coach the team’s game tonight against Oakland in bare feet. He is doing this in an attempt to raise 40,000 pairs of shoes to be donated to West Africa–a place of the world where far too many people do not have any shoes. Whether the IUPUI basketball team outscores the Oakland University basketball team tonight or not, I say that Coach Hunter is coaching the winning side.
As someone who has experienced, first-hand, what life is like in rural West Africa, I am not only grateful to Mr. Hunter for his efforts, but pleasantly surprised about the tact and the determination with which he is embracing this mission. Though any effort towards helping those in need is certainly warranted, some efforts either miss the point of their intentions or are done for personal publicity or fame. This, however, does not seem to do either.
First of all, he has accurately identified a real issue in Africa. So many people think of West Africa and its people and think about starvation and sickness. Yes, there are a lot of dire illnesses, and many people do go hungry. But, just as any other human culture anywhere in the world, they have found ways to survive and thrive in their environment. The typical West African does not go hungry. However, the typical West African does go shoeless. Will a pair of shoes save their lives? Probably not. Will it make their lives a little easier? Absolutely, and what is really lacking in West Africa is exactly what we have in abundance in the developed world–ease of living. Hunter should be commended for recognizing a real problem in this area of the world and, even more impressively, recognizing that he has a platform with which he can make a real difference.
Secondly, Hunter is the coach of IUPUI and has been since 1994. He may have designs on a bigger program, but it does not seem like it is his primary motivation, considering he has been in the Mid-Continent Conference (now the Summit League) his entire career. (A coach looking for an ACC coaching position does not stay at IUPUI for 17 seasons.) And, from all that he has said about this, he appears genuinely and passionately concerned with making a difference. The only publicity he wants to raise revolves around raising awareness for the problem and embracing the organization for whom he is representing in tonight’s game, Samaritan’s Feet. In fact, he even posted an inspirational message on their website, explaining his intentions.
Finally, and the most telling part of the story to me, is that Hunter is going to Nigeria in July to personally deliver some of the shoes that he raised. This strikes me for two reasons. One is that he wants to really be a part of his current mission. There is no way to really understand West Africa unless you see it. You cannot “learn” West Africa in a book, a magazine or on TV. You have to feel it. You have to experience it. You have to live it. And, trust me, it is worth it. It is, by far, my favorite place in all the world because of its uniquely human character. It is the only place I have ever been that I can say is 100% “real” and 100% “human.”
Secondly, and possibly even more significant, is that the trip is planned for July. Now, that may not seem significant, considering a college basketball season is played from November to March, but as many people may not realize, July is the heart of recruiting season for a college basketball coach. In an era of so many people being defined by their work and so many so-called celebrities using their status for individual gain, Hunter is putting aside his work, for one month, and giving back to the world community. In an attempt to honor the 40-year memory of one of the most courageously selfless men to ever walk this earth, Coach Ron Hunter is putting himself and his own personal work aside to try and make a difference. He is using his relative celebrity as a pulpit for increased awareness and positive change in an area widely lacking in these things.
For that, Mr. Hunter, I salute and I thank you.