NBA Player Makes A Poetic Exit

Many retiring athletes announce the end of their careers with a press statement. But 13-year veteran Adonal Foyle left the court his with a poem, “Love Song to a Game.” Foyle reflects on his career on and off the court. The retired center is the founder of Democracy Matters, a non-partisan student organization tasked with counteracting political apathy on college campuses. He also created the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, which serves children in the Caribbean and the U.S.

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TONY COX, host:

We turn now from the unique achievements of a football star to a remarkable story in basketball. Many fans think the life of a pro basketball player is full of glitz and glamour. But our next guest has built a higher profile off the court than on.

Adonal Foyle recently announced his retirement after 13 seasons in the NBA. He never won individual accolades, and his statistics were hardly what you would call all-star material.

Most recently, though, as a member of the Orlando Magic, he only played a total of 62 minutes over two seasons. But the team still wanted him back for next season. Its general manager, Otis Smith, conceded that Foyle may not have been the team MVP, but called him the most important player on the roster for his leadership in the locker room.

Away from the game, Foyle is a man of many interests and talents. He founded the organization Democracy Matters, a non-partisan campus-based group for students who are working for political reforms here in the United States. Foyle also started the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, an organization that helps mentor and educate young people in the Caribbean and the U.S.

He is also a writer in his spare time and penned a poem to mark his retirement. He calls it "Love Song to A Game." And Adonal Foyle joins us now from Youth Radio in Oakland, California. Adonal, nice to have you on.

Mr. ADONAL FOYLE (Founder, Democracy Matters; Founder, Kerosene Lamp Foundation): It's nice being here.

COX: You know, I've seen a lot of people leave the NBA, but I think you are the only one that I've ever heard of who left the NBA with a poem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Why'd you do that?

Mr. FOYLE: You know, I think that one of the things, when you've been in a career that the life expectancy or the average age is about four years, and you have done it for 13 years, I thought that instead of being upset that you have to leave the game, I thought that it was important to just say thank you.

And I wanted to say thank you to the game that I believe that has transformed my life in so many ways. And it was a tribute to a game that has brought me from the Caribbean and given me the opportunity to get a great education and 13-year NBA career. So I thought that was definitely in need of gratitude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COX: Well, we're going to share that with our listeners on our website, and we're going to ask you to read just a little bit of it before we finish our interview.

But here's a question for you: One of the top brass for the Orlando Magic called you the most important player on the team. Now, this is a team with Dwight Howard and some superstar players. So given how little time you've played with the team, why do you think he says that about you?

Mr. FOYLE: Well, I think that, you know, Otis has been around the game. He has played the game, and he's been around the game for quite a while. And I think once you've been around this game, you realize that what happens on the court is just but a small part of this game, is that you have more and more young players are coming into the league.

And I remember as a rookie, I had Terry Cummings, Felton Spencer, a lot of veterans, guys that helped me kind of navigate my path through the league. And I think it's very important, as these guys are coming in more and more young, younger to the league, that they have some kind of people that they can talk to or they can look up to that have been around for a while.

So I think Otis is talking about kind of, you know, my impact of being able to tell a guy what I think and having him respect that because I've been around the game for a while.

COX: Let's turn to some of your work off the court. As we mentioned, you started two nonprofits: one, Democracy Matters, which encourages young people to get involved in the political process; and the Kerosene Lamp Foundation, a mentoring group.

You know, most athletes, particularly in the NBA, they stay away from politics, but you seem to have gone in the other direction. Why?

Mr. FOYLE: I think the world is too complicated now for us to tell a segment of the population that they can't be politically involved. You know, for so many years, athletes were told, you know, not to have a political view because they should just shut up and play basketball.

And I felt that that must change because so many young people look up to athletes, and they have to know that we're very much affected by everything that happens in our community, not just what we do on the court. We're very much part of the community as a whole. And if that's the case, then we definitely have to be involved in the political process, as well.

COX: I've got to ask you about your years in the NBA. Going back to the Golden State Warriors, who you played for, at one point that team gave you a contract worth over $40 million. It didn't work out. They eventually let you go with $30 million still on the table. How big a deal was that, first, to get that big contract and then to leave with so much of that contract still on the table?

Mr. FOYLE: Well, you know, I made the decision after 10 years that it was time to kind of move on. And I left the money on the table. You know, I think that, for me, I've always known that I was going to be a person that continued to work during the course of my life, and nothing that is given to you is really yours until you earned it.

And I felt like this was, it was no longer fit for me, you know, for various reasons. And I asked them to buy me out, and they obliged. And I left.

COX: You know, your being here on the air with me is an example of you never know who you're going to run into in life because I live in California, and I went to see an Oakland game of the Warriors in Oakland, and I took my son with me.

And some of the players, not all, a few of them, came down and signed T-shirts and autographs, and you were one of the ones that signed my son's T-shirt, which he kept for years, so one of the good guys. I appreciate it. I couldn't tell you then, but I can tell you now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FOYLE: Well, thank you very much.

COX: You never know where you're going to run across people, do you?

Looking back, have you ever wondered whether your career could have, should have gone in a different direction?

Mr. FOYLE: I think, as a player, you always I felt that for me, because I came to the game very late, I was learning all the time. Every year, I felt like I learned something new.

And for basketball at the highest level, that could sometimes be very difficult with how long the seasons are, you know, because you play 13 seasons, that's a lot of games.

But I felt that every summer, I got better, and I add something to my game. But when you I think structurally, my first 10 years, in a situation where my first year in the league, the coach get choked to having, you know, almost 10 coaches in 11 years, 13 years.

So it's been structurally a very difficult kind of career, but I think that what I've learned is I learned to trust the soul of this community, of the Bay Area community and also in Orlando. And they trust me.

And because I think that they know that I when I go on the floor, I may not have been the best player, but I always, I felt like I left everything that I had out on the floor.

COX: Before I ask you to read an excerpt from your poem that you wrote when you retired from the NBA, let me ask you one other question. I have to. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Miami, what do you think of that?

Mr. FOYLE: I think, you know, this is a complex one because I think for the first thing is that a player has the right to obviously move to whatever team he thinks he has the best chance of winning.

But I think the debate and the argument around this decision, I had a problem with the way it was done. But then, again, when you think of the fact that this is a kid whose high school game was on television, who has grown up in the Twitter world, I mean, I think the decision and how he made it left a lot of people, you know, very unsettled.

But I think that, you know, having said that, here you have three African-American males who made that decision, not based on money but based on the fact that they want to win.

And when you look at what has been happening at the end of careers, Charles Barkley, you know, going to teams after teams trying to win a championship. Karl Malone, Gary Peyton, all of them going to different teams trying to find a championship, it's very hard to say that if a player makes a decision in the best interest and in the interest of what he thinks is a better team that can give him a chance to win a championship, you can't then tell him that that's the wrong decision.

COX: Adonal Foyle, the name of the poem is "Love Song To A Game." Read a little bit for us.

Mr. FOYLE: (Reading) I will miss brothers of a quilt struggling with the burning lights. If I offer advice, pierce beyond the glaring lights and see the faces behind the wall. Don't be fooled by the magicians' nimble fingers. For this is a life with mirrors and screens. Its only truth lies in the understanding it will all end.

The song I will take home is the symphony of thousands of screaming friends. Warriors, Magic and yes, Memphis too, I sing you praise, hope, blessings, flowing from a boy's songs of thanks to you and you and you, to all I knew. Please stay my immortal love.

COX: Adonal Foyle recently retired from the NBA. He is the founder and president of Democracy Matters, and he joined us from Youth Radio in Oakland, California. Adonal, it's great talking to you.

Mr. FOYLE: The pleasure's mine. Thank you for having me.

COX: And to hear Adonal Foyle read his full poem, "Love Song to A Game," just go to our website. It's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our program for today. I'm Tony Cox and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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