Lasting lessons from camp
Fred Whitfield can’t wait to get to basketball camp.
That’s the way Whitfield felt as an 8-year-old and it’s the same way he feels today, even though he has spent decades working with the biggest names in the NBA and is just a couple months shy of turning 60.
Every summer during his childhood Whitfield’s parents, Janol and Fred, loaded up the family car and drove their basketball-loving son 85 miles down the road from Greensboro, N.C., to rural Harnett County. Their destination: Buies Creek, home of Campbell University and a basketball camp that from its inception grabbed the attention of top coaches across the country and star players from nearby Atlantic Coast Conference schools. Those ACC players helped coach the kids at the camp and spent the rest of their time battling each other in pickup games.
Each year, his parents dropped him off on a Sunday and returned for him the following Friday — with nothing but basketball in between. Fred McCall, the Campbell basketball coach, and Bones McKinney, a former star player at both N.C. State and North Carolina, started the camp in the 1950s. (McKinney also played in the pros and went on to coach at Wake Forest.) A week’s tuition, Whitfield recalls, cost $95, including room and board.
Whitfield and his fellow campers had some pretty good coaches, too, including UCLA legend John Wooden and Press Maravich, who coached at Clemson, LSU and N.C. State and was the father of future star Pete Maravich. “Pistol Pete” came to Buies Creek, too, putting on dribbling and shooting clinics.
What Whitfield, now the president and vice chairman of the Charlotte Hornets, remembers all these years later is how much fun he had playing basketball all day, every day, a ritual interrupted only by sleep, meals and bus rides to the courts that campers used at area high schools.
That eagerness to get to camp continues today for Whitfield, who now runs Achievements Unlimited, an annual basketball camp started in his native Greensboro in 1985 and still going strong 34 years later in his adopted hometown of Charlotte.
The camp incorporates lessons he learned as a child at camp, and those passed on by Whitfield’s parents. Mix in All-Star-caliber friends, including Michael Jordan, and it’s clear the camp is anything but ordinary.
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Whitfield’s parents allowed him to chase his basketball dreams, but they also drove home the importance of education. Both earned master’s degrees and provided an example that pushed Whitfield to make the honor roll and, eventually, earn three degrees: bachelor’s, MBA and law.
Whitfield did well on the court, too. He played college ball at Campbell, where he became all-conference and team MVP. During college summers, he worked as a counselor at the same camp he had attended through high school.
During one stint as a counselor, Whitfield worked with a group of campers that included a rising high school senior from Wilmington named Michael Jordan. The two hit it off — Whitfield served as a momentary basketball mentor to Jordan after the camp before His Airness soared into history — and they’ve remained friends ever since.
When Jordan played for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the early 1980s, Whitfield would drive from Buies Creek, where he was then a Campbell assistant coach, over to Chapel Hill and watch the Tar Heels while spending time with Jordan and his UNC teammate Buzz Peterson (now a Hornets assistant GM). Jordan also worked with Whitfield as a counselor at the Campbell camp during the summers when he was playing at UNC.
Jordan, of course, went on to become arguably the greatest player in NBA history. Whitfield became a player agent and worked in various roles at Nike (where MJ became a one-man industry), among other career moves.
As a minority owner of the team then known as the Charlotte Bobcats, Jordan persuaded majority investor Robert Johnson to hire Whitfield to run the franchise’s business side. In 2010, when Jordan bought a majority stake in the team, he kept Whitfield as president, and the old friends worked together to bring back the Hornets name and logo while wiping away deficits accrued during Johnson’s tenure.
My thought was, how do I take a basketball camp — if my friends will help me start it — and use basketball as the hook and then tie in an anti-drug message and also have an educational piece?
Back in 1985, a twenty-something Whitfield was attending law school at North Carolina Central in Durham. That’s when he decided that he had been to enough basketball camps to figure out how to create one of his own. He had plenty of inspiration to do so.
Whitfield grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Greensboro and played in a rec league at the Windsor Community Recreation Center, a 15-minute walk away. Many of his teammates came from the rough-and-tumble housing projects on the other side of the rec center.
The kids played together for years, but, by the mid-1980s, five of them were dead, victims of drug overdoses and drive-by shootings. In short, bad decisions had led to the worst outcomes.
“My thought was, how do I take a basketball camp — if my friends will help me start it — and use basketball as the hook and then tie in an anti-drug message and also have an educational piece?” Whitfield recalled. “Because the educational piece helped me get to where I had gotten to by 1985.”
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This past July, Whitfield, two days into the 34th annual edition of the Achievements Unlimited camp, was talking about vocabulary words. Again.
It was Thursday morning of camp week — same schedule every year, 8:30 a.m. start, 3:30 p.m. dismissal every day — and 200 boys and girls, ages 8 to 18, were gathered at the Carolina Courts indoor basketball center in the Charlotte suburb of Indian Trail.
The day started with a panel discussion that highlighted Whitfield’s many connections in sports. “SportsCenter” anchor Jay Harris told campers about how he always loved to tell stories, leading him into broadcasting. Oris Stuart, the NBA’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, noted his place in pop culture history — the basement of his childhood home in Philadelphia is where Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff met, a reference that sailed right past the Gen Z audience. He then explained how a love of science and math led to an electrical engineering degree, then an MBA and an executive role as a consultant on talent and diversity in technology, health care and other industries.
The previous day, a local morning radio crew told the campers how much fun their jobs are and how much hard work it took to get those positions. Retired NFL player Steve Smith stopped by a couple of days earlier and, on Friday, Hornets All-Star Kemba Walker would drop in to finish the week.
As for those vocabulary words, from that first camp in 1985 in Greensboro, Whitfield made dictionaries a first-day gift to every camper. Each came with a list of vocabulary words, varying in difficulty by age, for campers to learn the definitions of and earn credit toward individual and team accolades during the week. Jordan and other celebrity counselors and speakers have autographed the dictionaries in a nod to education being every bit as important, if not more so, than anything that happens on the court. Jordan attended the first 28 camps.
Before the Thursday panel started its discussion, Whitfield outlined the day ahead. And, since it was late in the week, he put in a reminder about free-throw competitions, All-Star selections and team matchups.
“Unless you score 100 on your vocabulary test later today, after lunch, you have no shot at being a champion in this camp,” Whitfield said, pacing the floor and pausing intermittently to admonish anyone caught slouching or not paying attention. “You’ve had since Monday to study. Make sure you know all of your words.”
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Basketball Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning has known Whitfield dating back at least as far as Whitfield’s days signing and managing Eastern Conference NBA endorsers for Nike in the mid- to late-1990s. He’s made multiple appearances at Achievements Unlimited.
What stands out? “Handing each kid a dictionary,” said Mourning, who now runs player programs for the Miami Heat. “The impression [it made on me] was amazing because of the growth of it and its impact.”
Impact is important. Remember the original goal? Preach education, play basketball, cherish a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.
Even after the camp relocated to Charlotte in 2009, the format stayed consistent. Anti-drug agents and advocates man a station as campers make their way through various drills, meaning it’s a mandatory on-court stop for everyone to hear about the perils of recreational drug use, addiction and other pitfalls.
■ Camps: 34 consecutive
■ 2018 campers: 200
■ 2018 campers attending at no cost: 196
■ Campers served since 1985: 10,000
■ HoopTee Celebrity Golf Classics: 16
■ HoopTee Hardwood Legends Dinners in New York City: 5
■ NBA commissioners featured at those dinners: 2 (David Stern, Adam Silver)
■ Grants distributed by HoopTee to N.C. nonprofits in 2018: $100,000
Trumae Lucas was one of those kids who went to the camp when it was still in Greensboro. By the time she was in high school, Lucas had become the first female camper to play on the boys’ side.
Lucas went on to a college career, first at Florida and, later, Delaware, where her teammates included current WNBA star Elena Delle Donne. For the past five years, Lucas has been a camp counselor at Achievements Unlimited, where some of the coaches who taught her as a teen have become colleagues as part of Whitfield’s long-tenured coaching staff.
Dictionaries and vocabulary tests always resonated with Lucas at the camps as a kid. “It was like [Whitfield] was getting me ready for school,” she said.
One thing that has changed with time is who attends. At first, Whitfield placed newspaper ads to promote the camp and, thanks to initial star power supplied by Jordan and others, word of mouth spread fast. Attendees were mostly affluent kids.
Whitfield eventually created a nonprofit, HoopTee Charities, backed by a celebrity golf tournament to raise money to pay for underprivileged children to attend the camp. Achievements Unlimited has a website but otherwise doesn’t promote the camp.
This year, out of 200 campers, only four who attended weren’t on HoopTee-backed scholarships. A handful of grandfathered campers still pay to attend, but otherwise the camp works with nonprofits to find children who are good candidates for scholarships.
A companion sports dinner in New York has further boosted the nonprofit. The most recent HoopTee tax filing shows revenue of $400,000, covering expenses such as speaker and celebrity player travel, renting facilities and so on. The actual basketball camp costs $35,000 to $40,000 annually to stage.
In January, HoopTee donated $100,000 in grants to museums, camps and other charitable groups in Charlotte and Greensboro.
At 59, Whitfield sees no reason to slow down. Jordan no longer attends, but he remains a staunch supporter, lending his endorsement power (Gatorade has been a camp supporter for 30 years, while Nike’s Jordan Brand supplies shirts, backpacks and other gear) and making sure his top executive has the time to run the camp year in and year out.
Whitfield, showing off Achievements Unlimited memorabilia from the days when he had a full head of hair and a mustache, and when Jordan was a skinny young Chicago Bull, savors the years of squeaking sneakers and multiple generations of campers: “It is my favorite week of the year.”
Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.