Truth can be stranger, more inspiring and just plain better than fiction. Last year Disney released a seemingly silly film, The Air up There, about a college assistant basketball coach who discovers a future NBA power forward in a poor African country and brings him to the U.S. to star for his big-time program.
Back up to the original story meeting. What if we make the assistant coach a college professor...no, wait, husband and wife professors, who also conduct clinics for referees? Let's turn that country in Africa into an island in the Caribbean. And why does that college have to be a nondescript basketball power? Let's make it some picturesque school like Colgate.
Now we're rolling. Give the player a really distinctive name. Put him through all kinds of culture shocks, including his first elevator ride. Have these nice, diminutive Jewish profs become his surrogate parents—Mom and Dad, he'll call them—and you can almost see the audience smile. The kid wins games, but he also wins over an entire town. We put him at the center of a continuous struggle, basketball versus education, hoops versus books. He acquires a distinctly American passion for, say, Broadway musicals, yet remains very respectful of his Caribbean roots.
And this is the payoff: While the hero wants to become an NBA player, what he really wants is to be the prime minister of his island nation.
January 16, 1995
Hollywood would have said, Nah, too unbelievable, too good to be true. But Hamilton, N.Y., knows that this story is both too good and true. That's because Hamilton is where Adonal Foyle played high school basketball and now plays for Colgate University.
"I have to pinch myself sometimes," says Colgate coach Jack Bruen, a sort of anti-Pitino (attention, casting agents: Think Dennis Franz). "I played CYO ball with Lew Alcindor, and I've coached a few players who went on to the NBA, so I think I know the real deal when I see it. Adonal's still learning the game, but he could be the next Bill Russell. By all rights he should be playing for Duke or Michigan or Syracuse, not Colgate. A lot of people thought he was crazy to come here. He wasn't crazy, though. He was just honest and unspoiled and eager to learn. And I'm damn lucky."
Colgate's record may not look especially lucky—3-8 as of Sunday—but that's because Bruen arranged an over-their-heads schedule to prepare the Red Raiders for play in the Patriot League, whose champion gets an automatic NCAA tournament bid. In the meantime Foyle, a 6'10", 260-pound freshman, has been more than holding his own against the likes of Syracuse and Mississippi State and Penn; against Texas Southern on Dec. 3 he had 32 points, 25 rebounds and seven blocked shots in an overtime loss. Bucknell, Lafayette, Lehigh and the other Patriot League teams must shudder to think what he'll do to them.
In many ways besides his height, Foyle is a very big man on the 2,700-strong Colgate campus. "Something like 250 freshmen applied to be his roommate this year," says Josh Lamel, a sophomore sportswriter for The Colgate Maroon News. "One kid even submitted a list of the top-10 reasons he should be rooming with Adonal. About the only celebrity we have who compares to him is the guy who's a J. Crew model." If you know Colgate, you know that a J. Crew model would indeed command some respect on campus.
If you know Colgate, you also know that it enjoys a fine academic reputation. Among its illustrious alumni are Charles Evans Hughes, Andy Rooney, Charles Addams and the inventors of Trivial Pursuit, Ed Werner and John Haney. Among the university's excellent faculty are Jay R. Mandle, the W. Bradford Wiley Distinguished Professor of Economics, and Joan D. Mandle, an associate professor of sociology and the director of women's studies. The Mandles are also the authors of Caribbean Hoops: The Development of West Indian Basketball, and they are the surrogate parents of Adonal Foyle. (It might be a stretch, but they could be played by Jerry Seinfeld and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.)
And if you know Colgate, you know that sports there are decidedly medium-time, even though basketball is played at the I-A level, and the I-AA football program occasionally produces an NFL stalwart such as Marv Hubbard, Mark van Eeghen or Mark Murphy. Says Murphy (David Caruso), the former Pro Bowl safety with the Washington Redskins who is now Colgate's athletic director, "Adonal has had a decided impact on our program. For one thing, we're raising basketball ticket prices 100 percent—from $1 and $2 scats to $2 and $4 seats. For another, the basketball team has a contract [with Adidas] not only for shoes but for other things such as hats and bags, which is something we didn't envision a few years ago when we went 1-24. In fact, I'm thinking of sending the Mandles back to the Caribbean to find us a quarterback for the football team."
Easier said than done. To get from Hamilton to Canouan, the tiny island in the eastern Caribbean on which Foyle grew up, the Mandles once drove an hour to the Syracuse airport; boarded a USAir flight to New York's JFK Airport; connected to an American Airlines flight for Bridgetown, Barbados; switched to an Air Martinique plane bound for St. Vincent; caught a LIAT flight to Union Island, where a sign advised that "any loose cattle on airfield will be shot at sight"; and then boarded a boat for the clothes-drenching 10-mile commute to Canouan.
But that was nothing compared to the journey Adonal Foyle (played by budding actor Adonal Foyle) has taken from Canouan, a 1,832-acre tropical isle with a population of 740 (except during those unforgettable few weeks in 1989 when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S swimsuit team invaded), to Colgate, a 1,400-acre, often snowbound isle of academia nuts. Four years ago Adonal was a 15-year-old 6'5" beanpole with minimal education and absolutely no basketball experience. "My future was as a laborer or a fisherman," he says. But now he is that future NBA power forward and is possessed of a vocabulary nearly as impressive as his outlet pass—which, by the way, is something to behold. "The other day," says Bruen, "Adonal was quoted in the paper as saying he had 'esoteric tastes.' Ordinarily the kids on the team would've kidded him about it, but I'm afraid they didn't know what esoteric meant."
In Caribbean Hoops the Mandles write, " 'Hard luck!' is the continuous refrain, shouted by fans and players alike, which accompanies the play of basketball in the Caribbean.... But 'hard luck!', when shouted during a game, does not simply connote defeat. Rather, it is a cry of encouragement and hope as well, urging a player to continue to work hard, to not give up." While there was some good fortune involved in the transformation of Adonal Foyle, it couldn't have happened without a great deal of dedication, both on his part and on that of the Mandles. His journey was more hard than luck.
Says Foyle, "One of the books we read in general education this semester was the Odyssey, and as I read about the adventures of Odysseus—the Cyclops, the Sirens—I was sometimes struck by the similarities between our situations. We both have to undergo trials and overcome obstacles, all with the ultimate goal of going home. Odysseus has his sailing vessel. My vessel is basketball."
Lest you think Foyle has become some sort of nerd who's all work and only the occasional Broadway play—he would rather see The King and I than the Sacramento Kings—consider that he is keen on practical jokes, and when he played for Hamilton High he would not let the bus leave for an away game until he had gone up to the front and delivered this chant:
"Ship sail! Sail fast! How many men on deck?"
Then, after his teammates counted off, Foyle would gesture wildly and yell, "Let's go!"
Foyle says he took the chant from a story his grandparents used to tell him. The name Adonal (pronounced like Adonis) was given to him by an elderly woman who gives all the children on Canouan unusual names. Adonal never really knew his father, and when his mother, Patricia Foyle, departed Canouan to open a shop on Union Island, his upbringing was left to his grandmother, Faith Baptist.
"In some ways Canouan is a paradise," says Foyle. "Crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches, temperatures in the 80's, a sea breeze that's always present, a million stars at night. I have wonderful memories of working in the garden with my grandparents, planting and picking peanuts, potatoes, corn and peas. But I also knew there was another world out there, and I dreamed of seeing it."
Unfortunately Canouan didn't even have electricity, much less a secondary school or basketball. Twice Adonal failed the standardized test that would have enabled him to go to the high school on Union Island. Rather than give up, though, he studied for a year, took the test yet again—and passed. It's important to note that even before the Mandles came into his life, Adonal possessed the determination he would need to prosper in the U.S.
On Union he was reunited with his mother and introduced to basketball. "The first time I touched the ball, I ran the length of the court without dribbling," he says. "That's how little I knew about the game." Still, his height proved irresistible to the organizers of the Union Island team, and soon he was playing with men twice his age. In the summer of '91 the Union team won the championship of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the chain of islands to which both Union and Canouan belong, and thus earned a berth in an Eastern Caribbean States tournament on the island of Dominica.
Enter the Mandles. For several summers Jay and Joan and their son, Jon (a young Art Garfunkel), had crisscrossed the Caribbean to study the sociology and economy of the region, as well as to teach aspiring basketball officials. Jay, who still works high school games, grew up in Philadelphia worshiping famed referee Mendy Rudolph, and he liked nothing better than to patiently explain to a ref from St. Kitts, for instance, that 26 technical fouls in one game was not necessarily a good thing.
"I actually saw Adonal first," says Jon, a philosophy professor at SUNY Albany. "His game was rough, but he could block shots, rebound and throw an outlet pass like Wes Unseld. I asked around—I talked to this wonderful Rastafarian named Jobbie—and I reported back to Dad, who had seen Adonal by now. 'How old do you think he is?' I asked. Dad guessed he was 21. 'Nope,' I said. 'Eighteen?' 'No, 15.' "
(The Mandles actually have a videotape of that tournament. There is this skinny kid with a bandage on his right knee playing for Union Island, and while he does occasionally seem lost out there under the lights on the outdoor court with the wooden backboards, his potential fairly shouts out.)
After debating whether or not to approach Foyle—they are college professors, remember—and deciding that they would approach him if he were a potential concert violinist, the Mandles went up to him after one of the games and asked if he would like to go to school in the U.S. "I'll never forget his answer," says Jay. "He said, 'That is my dream.' "
As Foyle recalls, "I did feel like I was dreaming. I went back to the barracks where the team was staying to tell them the news, but somehow they already knew. They lifted me off the ground, and everybody started dancing and celebrating."
The Mandles talked with Patricia Foyle and got her permission to bring Adonal to the States. Although the Mandles had recently received appointments to Colgate, they were more familiar with the Philadelphia area—Jay had taught at Temple. Joan at the Delaware County campus of Penn State. After consulting various coaches and showing that tournament tape around, they arranged for Foyle to enroll at Cardinal O'Hara High School, a basketball power with a good academic reputation. So in the late summer of '91 they awaited his arrival. And awaited. "He was supposed to come into Philadelphia on a 3:30 p.m. flight from JFK," says Joan, "but he wasn't on that one. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. Jay even called Jobbie to find out what had happened. Adonal had missed one of his connections, it turned out. Finally, at midnight, he stepped off a plane. I asked him, 'Adonal, how did you manage to get on the right plane in New York?' And he said, 'Oh, the prime minister helped me.' "
"It's true," says Foyle. "The prime minister [of St. Vincent and the Grenadines], James Fitzgerald Mitchell, was on the same flight from Barbados. He saw that I was lost and helped me find my way through JFK. Someday, perhaps, I will be prime minister, and I'll help another Vincentian who is lost."
During his first few months in Philadelphia, Foyle often felt out of place. "The first time I stepped into an elevator and the doors closed and it started to move, I froze stiff. Eventually I figured it out. I'll never forget my first traffic jam: cars as far as the eye could see. I'd seen one on television, but I couldn't believe there were that many cars, that many people. Can you imagine what it was like for someone like me, who grew up on a tiny island with 800 people, to walk into Veterans Stadium for an Eagles game and sec 60,000 people?"
On the surface things seemed to go well for Foyle that first year. While living with a Cardinal O'Hara assistant coach and his wife, he averaged 16.4 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots a game and led his team to the Catholic League playoffs. He also received A's and B's in his sophomore classes. But the next summer, when the Mandles discovered that his total SAT scores were in the low 500's, far below the NCAA eligibility requirement of 700, they abruptly pulled him out of Cardinal O'Hara and moved him to Hamilton. That left O'Hara coach Buddy Gardler fuming. Said Gardler at the time, "He didn't know how to cross a busy street, and they're complaining about his board scores? He'll average 30 points [in Hamilton], but he's not going to get any better." Hell hath no fury like a coach scorned.
But before the Mandles decided to share the role of a latter-day Professor Henry Higgins, they elicited a promise from Foyle that he would follow their regimen. And what a regimen it was: pop quizzes and reading and vocabulary flash cards and reading and computer study and reading. "I would study with him for two hours in the morning," says Joan, "and Jay would go for two hours in the afternoon. We would be exhausted, and Adonal would say, 'Let's do some more.' " Saturdays were devoted to SAT preparation, and by the spring of his junior year, Foyle's SATs were comfortably above 700.
Oh, yes. Basketball. Coach Gardler was wrong on two counts. In Foyle's junior year at Hamilton High he averaged only 23.6 points, and he got better. That was clear to all the college coaches who were making the pilgrimage to gyms in out-of-the-way places such as Richfield Springs and Morrisville. Hamilton coach Tom Blackford says, "After my morning classes I would have seven or eight phone messages. After lunch I'd have five or six more. Then I'd go home at night and get another seven calls."
The Emerald Knights, who had gone 13-8 the previous season, went 24-1, losing only in the state Class D semifinals. Their home games had to be moved from the Hamilton High gym to Colgate's 3,100-seat Cotterell Court. The ship sailed, all right.
"Forget his dream," says Blackford. "Adonal was a coach's dream come true. And it wasn't just what he did on the court. It was the way he interacted with the team, the opposing team, the community. I'll miss the chants and even the practical jokes; he once had me convinced he had no sneakers before a game. I'll be honest with you: This is not the most racially enlightened place in the world. But Adonal changed a lot of attitudes—not enough, but still a lot.
"One time I took him to a health-education class up in Waterville, and he got up in front of all these seventh-and eighth-graders and asked them, 'What do you see when you look at me?' The first kid who raised his hand said, 'A future NBA player.' Another kid said, 'A big black guy.' It went on like that for a while: shot blocker, basketball star, etc. Finally Adonal cut them off. 'You're all wrong,' he said. 'I'm a student first.'
"Do you know what's ironic? Adonal Foyle came to Hamilton for an education. And he ended up giving us one."
As for Foyle's education, the Mandles never let up. Wherever they went in the summer of '93—back to Canouan, to the Converse ABCD Summer Jam in Ypsilanti, Mich., to AAU competitions in Arizona, Delaware and New York City—they brought along books for him to read. By then Foyle had fallen in love with musicals (it was a production of The King and I in Syracuse that had done it). "One afternoon in New York that summer," recalls Joan, "we went to see The Kiss of the Spider Woman. We were both blown away. Adonal, who was playing for Riverside Church, had a game that night, and I was worried about the aftereffects of the show. But as it turned out, he played very well that night."
During his senior year in high school Foyle not only took advanced-placement courses but was also elected president of the school's chapter of the National Honor Society. On the court he averaged 36.2 points and 20.6 rebounds a game. Hamilton's ship sailed fast, right on through to the Class D championship game, which the Emerald Knights won thanks to Foyle's 45 points and 24 rebounds.
About the only mistake he made was at the basketball banquet after the season. "Sometimes I forget where I am," says Foyle. "Back in the Caribbean, 'Good night' is used as a greeting. So when I stepped to the microphone to give my speech, I said, 'Good night!' and everybody cracked up."
There are those who think Foyle made a much bigger mistake when he announced his college choice. Oddly enough, Colgate's Bruen never pursued Foyle. "Because we were tyros in the whole recruiting process," says Foyle, and, yes, he actually says tyros, "we approached Coach Bruen for advice." And, says Bruen, "because they came as friends, I felt I had no right to put in a good word for Colgate. I suggested Duke and Michigan and Syracuse, great basketball programs with strong academics, but never Colgate."
It came down to Duke, Syracuse and Colgate, and on Nov. 17, 1993, the Hamilton High auditorium was filled with townspeople and members of the news media, all anxious about hearing Foyle's choice. "I've made my decision," he said. "I'm going back to the Caribbean."
After some nervous laughter, Foyle said he was going to Colgate because of the academic environment, and he wasn't joking. "It also made sense from a basketball standpoint," says Jay Mandle. "Jack Bruen is a great teacher, and Adonal gets to learn in a fairly low-pressure environment against some pretty good competition."
Bruen, who had already transformed the Colgate program from disastrous to respectable, was ecstatic, of course. "Next to the days my two children were born, this is the best day of my life," he said. The coaching staff of the Colgate women's basketball team sent Bruen champagne with which to celebrate.
The next day, papers in central New York and North Carolina carried either SYRACUSE FOYLED or DUKE FOYLED headlines. But the best reaction came from Kevin Joyce, a Hamilton High teammate of Foyle's. "It takes a big man to make a decision like that," he told Foyle.
Since Foyle's life is playing out like a movie, let's cut to the Colgate campus one year later and an acting class conducted by professor Katherine Liepe-Levinson. Two of her students are on a makeshift stage, acting out a scene from The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, a play about a young Jewish couple written by African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry. When the scene is finished, the professor asks the class what the scene was about, and the 6'10" student in the back raises his hand.
"It's about choice," says Foyle. "It's about the conflict between the guy, who wants to live in the country, and the girl, who wants to live in the city."
After class Liepe-Levinson says, "Adonal has been a wonderful student, He's quite willing to step outside himself and project another character. He's goal-oriented, which you would expect from a basketball player, but he also shows a sensitivity you might not expect."
"I love acting," says Foyle, "and the feeling of freedom you get every time you assume a role. I also think it helps my basketball. In acting we are taught to show pain and anguish even though we feel no pain. It's the same as taking a charge."
Besides acting and general education, Foyle took economics and astronomy in the fall semester. He lives in a dorm, in a single so as not to make any of the 250 freshmen who wanted to room with him envious, and he is doing just fine socially, academically and athletically. The Mandles still keep close tabs on him, and some people might think they're overprotective. But they have invested a lot in Adonal, emotionally, financially and otherwise. At least they can laugh about it. The other day, when Joan complained that a liver test given to Adonal cost $800, Jay said, "Well, he's got a big liver."
Some things you can't put a price on. Whenever Adonal calls Joan "Mom" or Jay "Dad" or Jon "Bro," there is no hint of self-consciousness in his voice. Foyle may be a culture apart from the Mandles, but their closeness seems perfectly natural.
"It has been a wonderful experience," says Joan. "I'm not saying we'd do it again. But watching Adonal grow up has been very gratifying. People ask us all the time if we think there might be another Adonal out there. I think there are a million of him. They may not play basketball, but they have something to offer if someone wants to take the time and energy to unlock their potential."
Now let's cut to the Carrier Dome, a slightly bigger stage, a few hours after acting class. Even in warmups you can tell that Colgate has no chance against Syracuse. Bruen has assembled a nice little team around Foyle and Tucker Neale—the senior shooting guard who was named the Patriot League Player of the Year last season after averaging 26.6 points a game—but the accent is on little. The 12th-ranked Orangemen, as usual, are big.
Before a crowd of 22,101—nearly four times the population of Hamilton—Syracuse jumps out to a 21-4 lead, and there's nothing for the Colgate fans to do except shout "Hard luck!" It doesn't help that the referees call fouls on Foyle's first two stuffs of Syracuse forward John Wallace, both apparently clean. After the second one, the 6'8" Wallace tells Foyle, "Nice try, boy." Foyle is hardly intimidated. He goes on to block five more Syracuse shots, two by Wallace. He also scores 15 points and pulls down 15 rebounds, but the single most impressive thing he does is to race the length of the floor to try to block a breakaway layup with just a few minutes left in the game and Colgate down by 35.
The final score is Syracuse 88, Colgate 53, but Bruen, ex-bartender that he is, finds a nice, shiny silver lining. "If Adonal had any doubters before tonight," he says, "they're long gone. He took on the whole Syracuse front line single-handed." Actually he was single-handed for a moment there. "I tried to go up for one rebound," says Foyle, "and a Syracuse guy was holding on to my wrist behind my back."
Foyle earns some admirers on the Syracuse side. Coach Jim Boeheim says, "Foyle's going to be a force," and senior forward Lucious Jackson says, "That man-child is going to be a sight to see someday."
The man-child is no less impressive after the game, hugging foes and teammates alike, then navigating between the Scylla of the TV reporters and the Charybdis of the print media. Asked how things are going at Colgate, he says, "I love it. I'm in the hands of a very good coach. I like his offense, and I think I'm going to prosper in it."
Ship sail. Sail fast.