Kermit Washington had gone back to American University on many occasions over the years -- the night they retired his basketball jersey, the times he needed a gym to run his clinics for aspiring players. During the highs and lows of an NBA career overshadowed by bitter controversy, his alma mater was one of the few places, he said, where he was always welcomed, always made to feel at home.
He wasn't just any AU alumnus, of course. As a longtime forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and other teams, Washington was the most celebrated athlete to emerge from a private college better known for producing diplomats and policy wonks.
But when he returned to the Northwest Washington campus last year, it was on a mission far more personal and one that had nothing to do with sports. In the office of the dean of the School of International Service, Washington described the free clinic he had started in a bleak Nairobi slum -- the focus of much of his energies since leaving pro basketball 15 years earlier.
Now he wanted American to send students to Kenya to help.
The dean said yes, and in January, AU will launch a study-abroad program that will enable students to intern with Washington's Project Contact Africa while taking classes for credit at Nairobi universities. At least half a dozen have signed on for spring semester, and Washington hopes to draw more in coming years from American and other colleges.
"We're going to help 100,000 people this year," said the 1973 AU graduate, now 53. "They are going to see that people being oppressed by disease and hunger can be helped."
If it weren't for his 6-foot-8-inch height, a passerby might not peg Kermit Washington as a former pro athlete. The new Arlington resident -- he relocated from Vancouver to be closer to the District, his home town -- arrived at American's campus on a recent morning in a plain blue button-down shirt and gray dress pants, a vaguely self-effacing hunch in his walk.
He politely steered the conversation away from himself, returning again and again to his African mission.
"If a pharmacy gave us 100,000 pills for intestinal worms, we could give those out in a month. If we had enough ringworm medicine and scabies medicine, we could help a million kids," he said, describing in detail the fast-acting properties of anti-parasitical drugs. "Two days later, every single bug is gone!"
It's hard to believe this was once the most vilified man in sports.
On Dec. 9, 1977, when the Coolidge High School graduate was playing for the Lakers, Washington became embroiled in a mid-game scuffle with a member of the Houston Rockets. When another Rockets player, Rudy Tomjanovich, ran toward him to break up the fight, Washington reacted instinctively to the blur he saw as a threat and let loose a punch -- freakish in the intensity of its impact -- that nearly proved fatal, doctors said.
Tomjanovich, now coach of the Lakers, underwent emergency surgery to repair broken bones in his face and skull. He and Washington have long since reconciled. But the punch cast a shadow over the rest of Washington's career and branded him a brute.
It ended the dreams he once had of becoming a senator or congressman. And it closed doors to him in the coaching profession as well. His venture into the restaurant business in Vancouver, Wash., with another former Trail Blazer ended a few years ago, a costly failure.
Today, he earns a living by running pre-draft camps to train National Basketball Association hopefuls. But much of his time and attention goes to Project Contact, the medical relief organization he formed in 1995 after an eye-opening trip to Africa.
Washington had spent years doing charitable work in his adopted home of Portland. With the support of Nike, he delivered athletic shoes to youngsters who made the honor roll. Over time, though, he grew disenchanted: Students would complain about the color of the free basketball shoes or pester him for a different style. He winced when remembering one delivery he made to a poor neighborhood; some of the recipients, after snagging one pair of sneakers, immediately got back in line to collect more.
"The greed and deceitfulness," he said, sighing. "I was so hurt. . . . I thought, let me help people who will appreciate it."
In 1994, after reading accounts of the genocide in Rwanda, he called a Portland-based medical humanitarian team that was traveling to the refugee camps. He offered to donate money. Instead, they invited him along.
Washington was staggered by the conditions of the camp he visited in Goma, Zaire. "Three thousand people -- no food, no water, no bathroom, no nothing," he said.
He befriended a little boy named Moses who had been saved from a mass grave. He sat by the bedside of a girl with pneumonia who asked for his lip balm. When he returned the next day, she had died. Their faces, and many others, lingered with him when he returned to the United States.
"They look at you with eyes of hopelessness, and I can't blame them," he said. "If I lived there, I'd be thinking, 'How can I get out?' "
Washington decided to recast the 6th Man Foundation he had created to address local issues in Oregon to give it a more global focus. In 1995, Project Contact began taking doctors and nurses to Nairobi's Kibera neighborhood -- one of the largest slums in the world and a destination for refugees from across eastern Africa -- to operate regular clinics.
He initially funded the effort out of his own pocket, including selling off his Porsche. Then he drew donations from the NBA Players Association and corporations such as Nike. Mostly, though, his organization is powered by the labor of volunteers who pay for their own travel, he said.
Which is part of the reason Washington approached American University to enlist students for help. This summer, Project Contact completed construction of a building that now houses a permanent clinic in Kibera. He envisions the study-abroad students teaching classes and mentoring young Kenyans in the clinic's extra rooms.
"The community is going to love them to death there," he said, face glowing with optimism as he imagined a ripple effect of volunteerism overseas.
"A dollar a day can save a life," he said. "I say, don't give money; come with us and buy some medicine when we get there. . . . What if a thousand people say, 'I want to do what Kermit is doing'?"
The American University program is capitalizing on a resurgence of interest in Africa on college campuses across the country, school officials said, as well as the growing number of students interested in international development and humanitarian work. "Young people today are concerned with the state of the world," said Louis Goodman, dean of American's School of International Service. "They want to find peaceable solutions to global problems."
Only in recent years have a number of schools begun to offer study-abroad programs that engage students in development work. AU officials said the school's ties to Washington enabled them to start within months a program that might ordinary have taken years to arrange.
It's tempting to wonder if Washington threw himself into a life of good works to redeem his image after the night of the catastrophic punch.
Not at all, he said. He had spent his life before that working hard to do the right thing -- making good grades, trying to please everyone -- only to find it meant nothing after one shattering event.
"You get to the point where you can't worry about what people think," he said flatly. "You don't go to Africa because you want to impress people -- it's dangerous."
If he had his choice, he said, he'd keep his image out of the Project Contact endeavor, disappear from the public spotlight and work in Kibera year-round. But the organization needs funding and volunteers -- things that come through public exposure, which is something his celebrity can command.
"When you're in Africa, you realize death is all around us," Washington said. "I hope when I'm on my deathbed, I can say it wasn't a wasted life."