When Neil Wake played center on the Middlesex (Va.) High School basketball team, he never dreamed his athletic skills would lead him to college or the possibility of a professional career off the court.
"When I left high school, college was the farthest thing from my mind," said Wake, who worked four years before becoming involved with Executive III, an organization of professional men who help Washington-area youth convert their athletic abilities into college opportunities.
Last January, Wake and five other basketball-playing beneficiaries of Executive III came to be known as the "D.C. Super Six" at Southeast Community College (SCC) in Fairbury, Neb., where they led the team to a 12-0 record, making them fourth in the nation among junior colleges.
"If it wasn't for this program I'd probably be out on the street," admitted Wake, the 6-foot-6-inch center, who was approached by Executive III program director Harold Bates at a local basketball tournament.
Since 1972 the organization, made up of four Prince George's County, Md., residents, has helped arrange scholarships with colleges and junior colleges for more than 100 youths, half of whom have earned degrees.
"We look for the kid who's not going to be recruited by the big schools, the kids who are not the superstars," in addition to those who do not have the grades to match their athletic skills, Bates said.
Bates, a librarian with the Washington, D.C., Public Library system, was one of five founding members of the group, which began in 1965 as Executives Limited, a social club of Fairmont Heights High School graduates who had kept in touch through college and military service. Executive III eventually expanded its efforts to garner scholarships for minority athletes, focusing not only on those from Fairmont but also on those from high schools throughout the metropolitan area.
Bates leads the informally run organization, whose other members are Aaron Coleman, a COMSAT employe, and two coaches, Stanley McDowell, a district manager for American Pest Control, and Sterling Parker, a counselor for the D.C. Department of Recreation.
The organization maintains two summer basketball squads: one that helps train players for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) competition for youths 19 and under, and a second that vies in the Urban Coalition summer league and includes some older college athletes, noncollegiate players and professionals.
These summer competitions showcase the Executive III athletes to college coaches, who Bates said are drawn to the games by the local high school "superstar" players, collegiate cagers (such as Ralph Sampson of the University of Virginia and Thorough Bailey of North Carolina State) and professionals who occasionally participate.
"This program was my second chance," said Wake, 24, who opted not to attend college after graduating from Middlesex in 1976. Currently a sophomore business major at SCC, Wake found his trade school education inadequate when he began job hunting after the computer billing firm he worked for moved to California.
"Things in Executive III are designed so that anybody that is trying to get ahead and trying to help themselves can do it," Wake said. "But you have to want to advance."
Bates said the majority of the Executive III players have started at junior colleges, which provided the social and academic tutoring required for the athletes to make it in the larger institutions to which many later transfer.
Current Executive III players include another Virginian, Mount Vernon High School's Albert (Junior) Brown, who was one of last year's "D.C. Super Six" at SCC along with Wake.
Not all the athletes who participate in Executive III need the kind of exposure to recruiters that the group seeks to provide, Bates said. Some Executive III alumni, like former Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Lenny Wills, are ignored by the big time only because of size, for instance. Others, like Brown, were recruited but later dropped out of college.
"I wasn't ready for the responsibilities of college life ," said the 21-year-old Brown, referring to his ill-fated year at High Point (N.C.) College. "It was my own fault . . . but I have learned from my mistakes."
Although he had always planned to attend college, Brown, now a business management major at the Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts, admits he would not be in school today without Executive III.
Although Executive III stresses academic achievement, Bates said members share a belief that acquiring a college degree is not the only measure of success.
"We hope that the academic experience itself will stimulate the student to seek a higher quality of life," Bates said, "that he will no longer desire to stand on the corner, smoke pot and slap hands."