Off the Field with Tracy McGrady and the Darfur Dream Team

I remember a few years ago when Tracy McGrady was a free agent and visited the Chicago Bulls.

He wasn’t impressed … and neither was I. He seemed like a typical self-obsessed young NBA player, interested mainly in what was good for Tracy McGrady. He signed with the Rockets, and it didn’t seem like much of a loss for the Bulls.

Sure, he’s a skilled player, but a team is more than the sum of individuals.

The other day, I was watching SportsCenter. They did a story on him taking a trip to the Darfur region of Africa to look into the refugee camps there. It sounded interesting, so I watched it.

And after it was over, I decided Tracy McGrady had grown up. Or maybe I had him pegged wrong in the first place. Hey, it happens.

Either way, it was a compelling story, and very good to see another young star become a leader and set a good example for all the people, including kids, that look up to famous athletes as role models. At the urging of teammate Dikembe Mutombo, he went to Chad, which borders the Darfur region of Sudan to the west, in September of 2007. He saw the results of genocide, up close.

From the Houston Chronicle story above:

So, McGrady went to Chad to live among Darfur’s displaced people, to hear their stories, to hold their babies and to vow to return to his world to be their voice.

He needed to see the orphans, barely able to walk, wandering through the camps, unattended, alone. He needed to sleep in tents overrun by maggots and frogs and rats. He needed to wake up in the middle of the night and feel the tears dampen his face.

He lived in a camp with thousands of refugees from Darfur. Mostly kids, of course. He asked them to draw pictures, and so they gave him pictures of planes dropping bombs on their villages and men on horseback killing their parents.

Obviously, these kids face a very shaky future. But McGrady saw a chance to help them with their education, at least. Says Tracy:

“I had to do something, so to help those children and others like them, I am opening a secondary school (high school) in the camp. I have funded the construction of the school, the training of the teachers and school supplies for a year.”

He came home and set up a foundation called the Sister Schools Project. He convinced his own high school to become a sister school to the one he was funding. He also helped make a documentary called 3 Points to call attention to the cause. He invited NBA players, like Baron Davis and Derek Fisher, to the premiere.

They were impressed enough to offer their own support for the project, now known as the Darfur Dream Team. The list of NBA players has since grown to include Luol Deng, Jermaine O’Neal and others.

Kudos to Tracy McGrady for stepping out of his comfort zone and challenging himself to become a better man. And kudos as well to the other NBA players, and the schools and charities, for offering to help him pursue his chosen goal.

I’ve followed the overall Darfur story pretty closely over the years. Lots of people see the pictures of what’s going on there and feel the need to “do something.” Usually, that means sending United Nations peacekeepers, who mostly just stand on the sidelines, powerless, and watch atrocities unfold.

But Tracy McGrady went there, and he saw a specific problem he thought he could help with: offering an education to kids who have lost everything.

Whatever else might be going wrong in the Darfur region, that sounds like an excellent plan to me.

(published at, May 2009)