Kermit's crusades to Africa continue to make a
By Kerry Eggers
The Portland Tribune, May 29, 2009
Former Trail Blazer forward Kermit Washington served as an
assistant coach for the NBDL Asheville (N.C.) Altitude in 2005,
but his primary area of service for years has been humanitarian
work in Africa.
JOE MURPHY / GETTY IMAGES
Had Kermit Washington’s life not turned forever on a fateful
night in December 1977, he might have had a career in politics
after pro basketball.
“I always wanted to be a congressman or a senator,” says the
Washington, D.C., native.
Then Washington destroyed Rudy Tomjanovich’s face with a single
blow, and his options from that point forward did not include a
career as an elected official.
But Washington, 58, has made his contribution to society since
a nine-year NBA career ended in 1982.
In 1983, as a way to thank the people of Portland for embracing
him during his three seasons as a Trail Blazer, Washington began
the Sixth Man Foundation, a charitable organization that served
the city’s youth for more than a decade.
When Washington visited Rwanda with the Northwest Medical Teams
in 1994, though, his life focus changed.
The next year, he founded Project Contact Africa, an
organization that brings medical relief to different nations on
Forty-four visits to Africa later, Washington remains committed
to the cause.
In recent years, he has focused his efforts on Nairobi, Kenya,
where he has spearheaded the movement to open a medical clinic
and a school along with a food-distribution center that feeds
hundreds of people daily.
“Kermit is very compassionate and has this huge heart,” says
Teresa Gipson, an assistant professor of family medicine at
Oregon Health Sciences University who met Washington while
voluntering her services on a trip to Africa in 1995. “He has
worked incredibly hard and invested his personal wealth in
maintaining the programs. He spends a lot of his own money, but
he gives in other ways, too. During times when he could be on
vacation, he is out there hustling to raise money to support the
Washington made Portland his home from 1986 — he had a
five-year stint as Mychal Thompson’s sidekick on a KFXX (1080
AM) sports talk show — until he returned to the D.C. area in
1997. He and his wife of four years, Mimi, live in Leesburg,
Va., 30 miles from from his hometown. One of his two sons, Trey,
lives in Vancouver, Wash., with his wife and Kermit’s two
grandkids. Washington says he gets to the area to visit about
once a year.
For the past five years, Washington has made a living as one of
five regional representatives for the NBA Players Association.
“It’s a wonderful job,” Washington says. “We get to work with
the players and still feel part of the game. We hope we can help
them not make the mistakes we made, both financially and (with)
But Washington’s passion these days is Project Contact Africa.
“A lot of people are involved with it, but Kermit is the guy
who really does it,” says Sam Richard, a Portland-area doctor
who has volunteered his time since the project’s inception.
“Without his energy and figuring out how to pay the bills, there
wouldn’t be a program.”
The first two years, Washington says he used his own money to
cover costs — about $30,000 a year, he estimates. Since then, he
has drawn on his NBA connections to help fund the work in
Africa. Washington has enlisted the help of many players, plus
Commissioner David Stern and players union chief Billy Hunter,
in his pursuits. Among the players who this year have donated
signed shoes to auction are Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight
“So many of the players have helped out,” Washington says. “A
couple of years ago, Ron Artest went with me to Kenya. He
donated money for food, bought school uniforms for kids, helped
pay for the medical lab to be built and to pay a lab technician.
He paid for heart surgery for a 7-year-old boy, and in the long
run, it saved the kid’s life. As crazy as he is sometimes on the
court, when it comes to generosity, you can’t find a more caring
Washington traces everything back to the city of Portland and
the Trail Blazer organization.
“If it weren’t for the Blazers and their fans, this would have
never come about,” he says.
“When I started the Sixth Man Foundation, I was doing well
financially, and I wanted to thank the people of Portland.
They’re the greatest fans in the world, and I’m not just saying
that, because I don’t live there anymore. They treated us like
sons, or fathers or uncles. I wanted to give back to them for
being so kind. With the help of people like (Nike founder) Phil
Knight — who donated thousands of shoes to inner-city kids who
made the honor roll — we helped a lot of people.”
But after the 1994 trip to Rwanda, “I saw those people weren’t
making it,” Washington says.
“They were dying and suffering, and I didn’t want to see that.
There were hundreds of thousands of people being murdered. It
affected me. We switched over to trying to take our resources
In the early years, Washington visited such countries as
Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire, then shifted his focus to Kenya.
“Kenya’s not as dangerous as some of the other countries,” he
says. “You can’t take nurses to places where whoever has the
biggest gun rules. In Kenya, at least they have policemen and
some kind of law and order.”
After the trip to Rwanda, “Kermit was shocked,” Richard says.
“He said, ‘Take me to a place where with a little bit of help, I
can make a difference in people’s lives.’
“Nairobi is a big city. If you have money and a job, it’s a
nice place to live. Otherwise, you have nothing. With a little
medical care and food and help, some of those people can go on
to better lives.”
A recent report said that one of eight Kenyans are
HIV-positive, “and it’s probably worse than that now,” says
Washington, who has helped mobilize teams of doctors and nurses
to work in the slum areas of Nairobi. One of the major
accomplishments was establishment of the medical clinic through
Gipson’s Ray of Hope Foundation, which was founded in 2003.
“Our organization provides technical support for Kermit and
oversight of the program,” Gipson says. “He continues to be the
inspiration for that clinic and the sponsor for that project.
Our organization works with him, and we have independent
projects outside of Nairobi.”
“In the early years, we’d run out of medicine after seven or
eight days, and we’d come home,” Washington says. “Dr. Gipson
talked me into getting the clinic, so we’d have a base for
everything there. It was, ‘Let’s see if we can get this done.’ "
School is free in Kenya, but some families can’t afford to send
their kids to school.
“They’re so poor, they can’t afford uniforms or to pay for
meals,” he says. “So we now have a school for about 50 kids. We
feed them twice a day and give them schooling so they can catch
up academically and then get placed into regular schools.”
PCA coordinates a food-distribution program that is currently
taking care of 600 to 700 people daily, but Washington’s aim is
“My goal is to fund a million meals per day,” he says. “It’s
not that difficult in Africa. You can feed 10 people very well
Members of the Medical Teams International (formerly Northwest
Medical Teams) continue to comprise a majority of the volunteers
in Kenya. Richard says he has gone seven or eight times.
“It’s a small thing, but it’s significant,” says Richard, who
has a private practice in Ridgefield, Wash., and works in the
emergency room at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham.
“I really like Kermit and enjoy working with him. We’re just
going over there and doing what we want to do, making a little
difference in the world.”
Washington says he spends about two months of every year in
Africa. His commitment remains as strong as ever.
“I’m very thankful that I’m healthy and have a good job,” he
says. “I lived my dream, to play in the NBA. I was an average
player, but I’m proud I was able to compete with the best
players in the world.
“But I get bored. I like doing what we’ve done in Africa. Don’t
pat me on the back for doing something I like doing. You feel
like Santa Claus when you go over there. The doctors and nurses
are the ones who save lives.
“People ask what they can do. I say, instead of sending money,
go (to Africa) yourself and see what can be done, and then
you’ll want to help change things. That’s why we take a lot of
people with us on our trips.”
Citizens who want to get involved can contact Washington
through his Web site (www.projectcontactafrica.com).
In September, Washington will conduct his second annual five-day
fast at American University in Washington, D.C..
“We raised $25,000 last year, and I lost about 20 pounds,” he
says with a laugh. “If you sacrifice a little and people realize
you’re serious about a cause, they’ll help out. It’s not a
comfortable five days, but the people in Africa we’re trying to
help, their lives aren’t comfortable, either.”
For this interview, I’ve spoken via phone with Washington for
nearly a half-hour. But I haven’t asked him about the
Tomjanovich affair, after which he sustained a 60-day suspension
— the stiffest ever in the history of pro sports at the time —
and a tarnish on his reputation that has lasted a lifetime.
I don’t intend to, but he brings up the subject when I inquire
what he thought of the 2006 NBA TV documentary on his life,
which detailed what he refers to as “that incident.”
“It was good,” he says. “You know why? The guys who did it were
good guys. They did their homework. They went with me to Africa.
They saw what I do.
“People always ask me about that incident. It was more than 30
years ago. If I’m in the airport, they’ll ask if I played in the
NBA. I tell them my name, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re that guy.’
Unless I’m in cities where I played, that’s what I’m remembered
for. But people been very nice to me. That’s just life.
“I learned a lot in basketball, but I always wanted to be a
coach. Because of that incident, I never got an opportunity to
do what I think I could do. but that’s OK. In the long run,
things are better this way.”
In the documentary, the narrator closes with, “One thing is for
sure: Kermit is finally at peace. He has finally been able to
put his past behind him.”
I’m not so sure that is true, and I ask Washington about it.
“I was always at peace,” he says. “The incident didn’t have
that much effect. It had an effect on the way people judged me
or gave me an opportunity, but not inside.
“I’ve told Rudy many times I’m sorry for what happened. I
regret it, but I have to go on living my life. I’ve been very
fortunate. I’ve had my ups and downs, but at least I’ve helped
hundreds of thousands of people. And I wouldn’t have been able
to do this without the many people who have gone out of their
way to help me.”
not a psychiatrist. Our paths have crossed professionally over
the years, but I don’t know Washington well. I do know he is
sincere in his efforts to make a difference. If a small part of
it is because of a desire to make amends for a mistake made more
than three decades ago, it’s time to forgive, and to give the
man his due.