Digger wants to help inner-city children | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Digger wants to help inner-city children

Rick Chandler, Tahoe Daily Tribune correspondent

Like many of us, Digger Phelps watched this year’s NBA Draft with a mixture of excitement and bewilderment, and with a number of Eastern European translation dictionaries readily at hand. As Paul Newman and Robert Redford were so fond of saying in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:” “Who are those guys?”

The difference is that Phelps is an ESPN college hoops analyst, a gig he has held since 1993, two years after retiring as head coach at Notre Dame. So, Digger, what’s up with all the foreign players in the draft these days? What’s the view from the inside?

“For many NBA teams, drafting foreign players is a quick fix,” said Phelps, who finished the weekend at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship with an 89, for a three-day total of 263 — which put him tied for 53rd. “Drafting foreign players is not the answer,” he said. “For the most part they have more experience, but the U.S. players are going to catch up to them in four or five years. A team would be better off drafting for the future.”

Players such as No. 1 pick Yao Ming of China and No. 5 Nikoloz Tskitishvili of Yugoslavia, via the Italian League, are long on experience but short on finesse, said Phelps.

“They can’t match our players in the finesse game,” he said. “These are physical guys who can rebound and play inside, but they aren’t shooters and they aren’t very fast. The only foreign finesse player I ever saw was the late Drazen Petrovich. I was doing a clinic in Yugoslavia in 1979 and I happened to see him play when he was only 16. He was phenomenal. I tried to get him to come to Notre Dame but it didn’t work.”

Since Digger said it, you can take it as gospel. And speaking of sermons, it didn’t take him long to get to his favorite subject: social activism on behalf of youth.

“I’ve been very involved with several programs for youth in South Bend, right now we’re raising money to fix schools and provide after-school activities for inner-city kids.” he said. “We’ve been hit hard by the after effects of 9/11, but we still can’t forget that we have a terrible dilemma in our schools. In 1998, 978,000 kids brought guns to school. Something’s wrong, and we have to fix it.”

Phelps has taken the same passion he employed in his 20-year career at Notre Dame and applied it to this cause, a series of programs which he calls “The Three Rs of Summertime” (Renovate, Renew, Reviatalize). Call if a full-court press on the elements which prevent our nation’s youth from fulfilling their potential.

“The ntional focus right now has been on fighting terrorism, and we should be focusing on that,” he said. “But why can’t we organize an army to help kids here at home? We sent 500,000 soldiers to Iraq to kick Saddam Heussein out of of Kuwait. So why can’t we build a domestic army to get involved in real issues here?

“Here’s how you do it: city by city, county by county, state by state. You have to get involved. You can take some time from your day each week and mentor a kid. Teach a kid how to read. It’s not a hard game plan. If everyone gets involved, asking themselves the question ‘What can I do?,’ then we can solve all our problems.

“This tournament in Tahoe is a great time for everyone, but it’s important to remember that there are people in this country who are really hurting.”

Phelps is an organizer of several after-school clubs in South Bend, including a group that instructs kids on skills such as creative writing, collecting and cooking.

“We announced this program, and more than 100 inner-city kids signed up for cooking!” said Phelps. “If you can get to them by age 6, and when they’re 16 and they have a passion for doing something they really love, then you know you’ve won.

“Right now I’m using my name as an asset. But everyone can make a difference. You just have to want to do it.”

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