Building a Basis for Dreams: RORY SPARROW

December 21, 1987

The personnel man for the engineering firm didn't understand what Rory Sparrow had written on the Objectives line of his rèsumè. "What do you mean you want to enhance the quality of life?' " he asked Sparrow. "What's that have to do with engineering?"

"It has to do with what I want to do with my life," answered Sparrow, then a senior electrical engineering major at Villanova. "I can't be a good engineer without having that as a primary objective."

The man shook his head in puzzlement. Sparrow wasn't the recruit his firm was looking for.

Although his B.S. degree is in electrical engineering, Sparrow, 29, isn't a practicing engineer—unless one considers the engineering he has done as a 6'2" point guard for four NBA teams since 1980—but he's certainly fulfilling his life's objective. Through the Rory Sparrow Foundation Inc., a nonprofit organization that he formed in 1984 while he was a New York Knick, he has enhanced the quality of life for hundreds of high school-age youths in New York City and in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., where the foundation has its headquarters.

Sparrow contributes real time—"He gets personally involved in every program," says Cary Alleyne, the foundation's executive director—and real money, more than $125,000 over the last three years. The foundation's projected budget for this fiscal year is approximately $260,000, with the portion not provided by Sparrow coming from corporate and individual contributors. And although Sparrow was traded by the Knicks to the Chicago Bulls last month, his involvement will continue, albeit with some difficulty.

The foundation sponsors three programs:

1) Leadership Development—This exposes high school students to the workings of government and the corporate system.

2) Career Beginnings—Every year the foundation helps 100 high school juniors find summer jobs. It then matches each student with a mentor from business or government who follows the student's progress through the next school year and helps him or her select and apply to college or find a job after graduation.

3) Summer Athletics—The Rory Sparrow Summer Leagues run competitions in basketball and tennis (Sparrow's other sports passion) and also offer counseling on drug abuse, nutrition and proper stretching techniques.

No such help was available for Sparrow when he was growing up in Paterson's Alexander Hamilton projects, notoriously bleak low-income housing in one of America's most economically depressed cities. But a number of things helped Sparrow escape the poverty-induced despair that ensnared so many of his friends. His family, though poor, was intact, close and very religious. His father, John, works at a chemical plant and his mother, Claudia, works at a pin factory. Sparrow was not only athletically gifted, he also had a good mind.

"But I think the most important factor in my getting out was my own fear," says Sparrow, "the fear I had of disappearing without being anything except a birth announcement and an obituary notice. That fear is one of the first things I remember. It propelled me away from a lot of trouble."

And toward books, social consciousness and a world outside the stultification of the projects. He was strongly influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. "Dr. King showed me what a difference one man could make," says Sparrow. "I knew I wanted to make a difference, too. I wasn't sure how, but I knew."

Sparrow's involvement with kids began during his last year with the Atlanta Hawks, but it was after he was traded to the Knicks midway through the 1982-83 season that he got the idea for the foundation. "Most of the kids had no hope," he says. "We were poor, but it seemed like we had more optimism, more spirit, when I was in high school. Now, nobody believed in anything. They were living mundane, uneventful lives unless they got involved in crime or drugs. They were dying without dreams."

Rosa Williams, who was working for the David M. Winfield Foundation, encouraged Sparrow to set up a similar organization that would give the kids back their dreams. "I knew that was the right idea," he says, "but I didn't know what it would cost. One gentleman suggested between 50 and 75 grand, and I told him he was nuts." Sparrow smiles. "Turned out he was conservative."

Fund-raising was hard at first, but gradually word got out that the Sparrow Foundation was doing some good things. "Now people are coming to us," Sparrow says.

Many of the good things happen in the Leadership Development Program. "The classes are designed to influence us into setting goals and thinking about the future," says Mayida Zaal, a senior at John F. Kennedy High in Paterson. "It's something we don't get in school."

Most, if not all, of the students knew about Sparrow before they discovered his foundation. His off-season home in Paterson, where he lives with his wife, Jacqui, and their two children, is only about a mile from the development where he grew up, and he's a tireless speaker at high schools and youth organizations in the Paterson area. "It's important to kids that he came from here," says Mayida. "Kids know the projects, what he got away from, and they can respect him for that." Adds Edward Riveria, a senior at Passaic County Technical High School, "Anyone—black, white, Hispanic, rich or poor—should take Rory Sparrow as a role model."

If the fund-raising can continue unabated while Sparrow is in Chicago, the foundation certainly will have no lack of ways to spend money. Sparrow and Alleyne have lots of plans. They envision a "cultural communication" program, in which students would travel abroad and produce a video about the experience. They hope to start a video library of motivational and instructional tapes. They talk of starting a computer school, health fairs, summer park programs. The ideas spin endlessly through Sparrow's mind, like the X's and O's in his playbook.

"The daily pressure of the foundation is draining," says Sparrow. "I get tired and depressed, and sometimes it's a struggle to maintain optimism in a pessimistic society.

"But then, just as quickly, I remember what I was put on this earth for. I look at life every day as a gift and a challenge. It's an old adage, but it's a true one—I believe that what you get in life, you should give back." By any measure, Sparrow is giving back more than his share.

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYER PHOTOLANE STEWARTIn Paterson's council chamber, Sparrow talks to a leadership class.

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