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Monday, March 11, 2002
Updated: March 13, 12:45 PM ET
A real D.C. difference-maker

By Dave McKenna
Special to ESPN.com

Susie Kay says she just wanted to "do something." But in founding the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund, the D.C. school teacher may have come up with the consummate Washington charity.

Susie Kay, Arthur Agee
Arthur Agee, right, relates his "Hoop Dreams" to Susie Kay and others at last year's three-on-three tournament.
In 1996, Kay organized a street-level basketball tournament on the playground of a junior high school. In equal numbers, she invited inner-city youngsters who view the game as their lifeblood and powerbrokers who run the local industry -- politics. And she had them play against each other. Kay hoped this odd coupling would not only generate money to send a few underfinanced kids to college, but also would bridge the Grand Canyonesque cultural gap between the students and, well, the opposition.

From the start, her plan worked. Fabulously.

During Hoop Dreams' inaugural three-on-three tournament, Kay smiled along as a team led by young phenom DerMarr Johnson schooled the squad run by her longtime pal Ari Fleischer on its way to the championship. That smile got even wider when she got to hand over scholarships to four students who otherwise might not have cracked a book beyond high school.

And with an unexpectedly massive outpouring of assistance from area business leaders -- including Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey -- Kay's benevolent brainchild quickly blossomed beyond everybody's expectations. Especially hers. "I really don't have time to stop and think about how big this has gotten. And that's probably good because it would scare me," Kay says. "And no matter how big we are, there's no way I'd ever think 'Hey, we're doing enough!' I know I can't let up."

What started as a one-day hoops tournament has, in just six years, morphed to become a full-time, full-service charity that has granted scholarships to more than 600 kids, and provided hope to countless others. Kay says she expects about 2,000 competitors to participate in the 2002 edition of the Hoop Dreams tournament; she's shooting for a main draw made up of "around 1,000 students and 1,000 business and political leaders."

If the past is prologue, local sports stars, including former Georgetown Hoya and current Toronto Raptor Jerome Williams and various Wizards, Mystics and Redskins, also will mix it up against political types -- Rep. Jack Quinn (D-N.Y.), Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), and ex-NBA'er/ex-congressman Tom McMillen are regulars. Another expected participant: Arthur Agee, protagonist of the award-winning documentary "Hoop Dreams," the film that illustrated the sometimes harrowing grip that basketball has on urban America. The movie also provided Kay with a name for her event.

Doling out tuition checks to deserving and needy recipients -- only students from the D.C. public school system are eligible -- remains a prime component of the Hoop Dreams mission. But the group now also offers such academic-enhancement services as a year-round mentoring program, SAT and even LSAT preparation courses.

Susie Kay
Kay and Andrew McKelvey, CEO of TMP Worldwide, chat with students at a Hoop Dreams college prep mentoring session.
"Ms. Kay gets people to dream about going to college who didn't use to have that dream," says Cynthia Greene, a Hoop Dreams beneficiary and recent Cornell University graduate. "But Hoop Dreams also turns going to college into something more than a dream, and makes it something that actually seems reachable."

Greene is an alumna of H.D. Woodson, a high school with an all-black student body that's located in the city's Ward 7. That's an area the kids and cops used to call "the Killing Fields." She grew up around the corner from the school. She's now a software consultant with Accenture, and a Hoop Dreams mentor.

Kay, a Jewish native of toney Newport, R.I., has been teaching American Government to 12th graders at Woodson since 1990. She lives on the "good" side of the Anacostia River, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. The teaching gig enlightened Kay about the divide that exists between the haves and have nots in her adopted hometown.

"Every morning I drive from Capitol Hill across the river to get to school," she says. "It's a short drive in terms of miles, but I realized that there's a huge difference in terms of access to power and resources and even hope between where I live and where I work. I wanted to do something that would bring people from my two worlds together. And I think that's happened."

I really don't have time to stop and think about how big this has gotten. And that's probably good, because it would scare me. And no matter how big we are, there's no way I'd ever think 'Hey, we're doing enough!' I know I can't let up.
Susie Kay on the success of the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund

Fleischer, bucking the conservative Republican stereotype, was supportive of Kay's gap-bridging attempt from day one. When she was looking for a speaker to come to class to explain his party's Contract With America in the mid-1990s, Fleischer came to Woodson and faced what was a decidedly hostile audience. Though his role as a star in the real-world West Wing keeps him away from Hoop Dreams events these days, he's still listed as a member of the charity's advisory board.

"It's weird to see Ari Fleischer on television all the time now," says Kerwin Speight, a Woodson alumnus who was awarded a Hoop Dreams scholarship in 1998. "To me, he's just a guy who was always around helping out Ms. Kay at school."

Despite the expansion of Hoop Dreams' mission, the centerpiece of its social calendar remains unchanged: The three-on-three tournament. This year's edition is slated for June 8. That's the same day that D.C. is tentatively scheduled to play host to the Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight. And the Hoop Dreams' hoops, according to the current plan, will be set up on the streets surrounding the MCI Center. That's the building where Tyson and Lewis are supposed to have at it.

If Kay is at all ruffled by the potential collision of her event and the fight, she's not letting on. "It would be great for us to have both the same day," she says. "Think of the crowds we'd get!"

By the time the 2002 tourney tips off, Speight will have graduated with a degree in journalism from American University, Kay's alma mater. He's currently an intern at C-SPAN, meaning Speight and Fleischer could cross paths again soon, only this time in a professional setting. Speight thinks he might want to run a television station someday, but he's not in any hurry to pledge himself to any single career track.

"I can't really say where I'll end up," he says. "There's really a lot of things I'd love to do, and all of them seem possible."

Dave McKenna writes a regular sports column called "Cheap Seats" for the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly in Washington, D.C. More information about the Hoop Dreams Foundation can be found at www.hoopdreams.org.