Adonal Foyle: in the big league

From the small island of Canouan in the Grenadines, Adonal Foyle makes it into the NBA. Georgia Popplewell traces his journey

Adonal in action. Photograph by Sam Forencich/ NBA PhotosAdonal with sister Teresa (left), brother Augustine and mom Patricia at Augustine’s graduation. Photograph courtesy Adonal FoyleAt the 1997 NBA Draft with mom Patricia, Joan Mandle (back row, second from left) and Jay Mandle (standing, right). Photograph courtesy Adonal FoyleMeeting the press Warriors Media Day. Photograph by Sam Forencich/ NBA PhotosPhotograph by Walt LovelacePhotograph by Walt LovelaceTall Tales: reading to Oakland schoolchildren. Photograph courtesy Adonal Foyle

By the standards of makeshift courts in the Caribbean, the basketball court at Ashton isn’t bad. It’s walled in, there are ample bleachers, lights for night games, and community support aplenty. On any afternoon, anywhere in the Caribbean, a court like this would be filled with young men dribbling and passing and rebounding and blocking and executing lay-ups. Up to a few years ago, such a court would have been fine for Adonal Foyle, too.

But today, for someone like Adonal, one misstep on the uneven concrete surface of the Ashton court could translate into a loss of thousands, maybe millions of dollars. Later that evening, however, Adonal Foyle, who has played for the Golden State Warriors of Oakland, California, since 1997, will play on the Ashton court with his old team, Union Island Secondary School. The evening, you see, has been designated Adonal Foyle Night.

Basketball is something of an obsession with Unionites. Bumba Charles, who is credited with bringing the sport to Union Island, founded the West End Zips, which became a leading team in the St Vincent and the Grenadines league. When, at 15, Adonal Foyle, well on his way to 6 foot 10 inches, arrived in Union Island to attend high school, his fate was pretty much sealed. He would play basketball whether he liked it or not.

Adonal Foyle was born on Canouan, an even smaller island in the Grenadines, in March 1975. Union, he says, is “upbeat” by comparison. Patricia Foyle, a shy, quiet woman who runs a haberdashery and bar in Clifton, remembers her third child and eldest son as a “cool and quiet child, always a nice kid.” She moved to Union when Adonal was still quite young, leaving him in the care of a grandmother who, he says, kept him well in line. Like most other young men in the Caribbean, he grew up playing cricket and football, though he says he was never much good at either. Before the Unionites practically forced one into his hands, he had never touched a basketball.

The story of Adonal’s first brush with the game is quoted in practically every article that has been written about him by the American press. Adonal’s version goes like this: “I went to school the first day, and Danny, one of my friends, he’s like, ‘You gotta play basketball.’ And I’m like, no. He keeps nagging me for about two weeks before I finally go to the court, very tentative about the whole thing. I’m like: I don’t know anything about this game. It looks stupid, people run around with the ball and try to get it into a little ring. It was recess, and everybody took their shirts off and they’re running barefoot on the hot concrete. They explained the rules to me in about ten seconds and I’m playing, I’m throwing the ball to him. He’s having a good time, passing it between his legs, so I wanted to get a little scoring too. So, I got a rebound, and instead of dribbling it and passing it to him I tucked it under my arm and just started sprinting toward the other end of the floor. I got the lay-up and looked back, wondering why nobody was behind me. People were just spread out all over the floor, laughing their heads off.”

No need to say who eventually had the last laugh, but embarrassment kept Adonal off the court for some weeks after that episode. He returned finally, joining the Valley Nets team, which practised under the cover of night. Soon he was playing non-stop. “I played here [at Ashton], went up to Clifton and played, played for the school team, played for Valley Nets. I just tried to be on the court as much as I could.” His game took shape, and he started laying the foundation for what would become his specialty: blocking shots and rebounding, a skill he says he developed partly in response to the local conditions.

The second oft-told story about Adonal Foyle has to do with Jay and Joan Mandle, a couple of academics from Philadelphia. The Mandles had become involved with Caribbean basketball when Jay, a professor of economics, was teaching at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. They got involved in organising basketball refereeing at the regional level, and even tried unsuccessfully to put together a Caribbean Referees’ Association.

In 1990 the Mandles attended an inter-island tournament in Dominica, where a Union Island team, winners of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Championship, was participating for the first time. “The Union team included a very tall, skinny, not-so-good basketball player,” says Joan. “But our son was with us, and he said: ‘Do you know how old that kid is?’ And we said: he’s 22, 23, the way most Caribbean basketballers are. And our son said: ‘No, he’s only 16.’ That was the first time we saw Adonal. We asked him if he’d ever thought about using his basketball talent to go to college in the United States, and he was sort of struck dumb. And two and a half weeks later he was on a plane with us to the United States. It was very strange.”

Strange is putting it lightly. Neither of the Mandles can quite explain why they did what they did. Joan offers this by way of explanation: “They were the worst team in the tournament, and people were making fun of them, and I think something about the underdog really appealed to us. And when we went back to Union to meet Adonal’s mother and to see where he actually lived, we felt that this would be really a fabulous opportunity . . . Of course, we never in a million years imagined he would turn into an NBA player. But we thought he could get a college education. He was still in school, he was very serious, and we liked him.”

From Adonal’s point of view, the meeting with the Mandles looks like this: “I wasn’t doing anything right that game. It was one of my big first exposures and first time out of the Grenadines, so it was a very, very scary moment for me. But we were having a lot of fun, and their son was watching, and he came over to his parents, and he said, ‘Did you see that person? He looks so much like Robert Parrish.’ So then they had to decide what they wanted to do: could they leave somebody who was 16 who obviously — to them — had potential? So that’s how it started. They offered me the opportunity to come to the United States, to use my meagre — I thought — basketball skills to get an education.”

Patricia Foyle says she was sad when Adonal left, but she found the Mandles good people and agreed to let them take her son. Jay and Joan became Adonal’s legal guardians, though he refers to them as his step-parents.

Adonal spent his first few months in the US living in Philadelphia with friends of the Mandles, who, having moved that very year from Temple University to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, thought it best for Adonal to remain in Philadelphia until they got settled in. For the 16-year-old, the experience went beyond culture shock. “It was the first time using an elevator, the first time eating pizza, everything I did, it was like a new adventure,” he says. “It was the most frustrating, but exciting, time of my life.”

Adonal took some time to adjust to the American school system as well. By the end of that year he and the Mandles decided he should move to Hamilton. There he found the schools and the small-town atmosphere much more to his liking, and he blossomed both as a student and as an athlete.

From high school, Adonal went on to Colgate University, where, in only three seasons in the Patriot League, he blocked 492 shots, breaking the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record of 453 set by Georgetown’s Alonzo Mourning, and eclipsing the 481 posted by another Caribbean-born future NBA star, Tim Duncan. (At this writing, the record still stands.) Foyle became only the third player in NCAA history to compile 1,700 points, 1,000 rebounds and 450 blocked shots in a career, and is Colgate’s all-time leading rebounder, the first two-time Patriot League Player of the Year, and the Patriot League’s Male Scholar Athlete of the Year. (At Colgate he majored in history and sociology with a minor in English.)

Adonal’s glowing varsity record earned him the thing college basketballers dream of: an invitation to the 1997 NBA Draft, where, as an early entrant, he was selected in the first round by the Golden State Warriors, the eighth pick overall. Adonal’s mother and older sister Marian attended the nerve-wracking draft session in North Carolina. “When I heard Number 8, Adonal Foyle, I was standing and clapping and shouting,” says Marian, a sweet-faced young woman who confesses to being a Knicks fan. “People around me were like, who is she? And I’m like, it’s Adonal Foyle, he’s from St Vincent and the Grenadines! That day was amazing.”

The Warriors in recent years have not been the strongest team in the NBA. During the 1999-2000 season they registered a dismal 19 wins and 63 losses, and finished sixth out of seven in their division. In recent times the players have been plagued by injuries, and the altercation between former Head Coach P. J. Carlesimo and Latrell Sprewell (now with the New York Knicks) won’t be forgotten soon.

Adonal’s own career there has been somewhat chequered as well. Though he ended his first NBA season 7th among all rookies in blocked shots, he averaged only 12 minutes a game, and his lack of experience and pedigree was noted by the sporting press. In his first year, he was also sidelined after breaking his foot playing in the Jersey Shore League in the summer.

Then came the infamous NBA lockout in June 1998. Teams notified players their contracts could be voided if they were injured playing in the summer, and Adonal, the only NBA player participating in the Bay Area Pro-Am Summer League, dropped out after two games, for fear of jeopardising his three-year, $4.25 million deal. Adonal also feels Carlesimo was too hard on him and didn’t play him enough.

For the home game on 5 April 2000, however, under interim Head Coach Garry St Jean, Adonal is part of the starting lineup, playing at the number 5 (centre) position against the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA team du jour, whose star centre, Shaquille O’Neal, is one of the best and biggest players in the entire league.

With its hardwood floors and blaring music and jumbotron screens, its dancing girls and blue mascot somersaulting in the middle of the floor, the Arena in Oakland is about as far from the Ashton basketball court as you can get. And this is by no means Adonal Foyle Night (if anything, it’s Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant Night, for Oakland’s citizens are probably even more eager to see the Lakers stars in action than to support their losing home team).

Adonal scores the game’s first 2 points but gets replaced by Mark Davis in the 10th minute. At the end of the first quarter the Warriors are leading 24-21. Around the 3rd quarter, Adonal and Shaquille O’Neal collide, and the seven-foot-one, 315-pound Shaq falls on top of Adonal. The audience gasps. But Foyle gets up again.

In the end, the Warriors manage to put together a competitive total. The Lakers win, of course, but only 111-104. In spite of Adonal’s near brush with death (he calls Shaq an “agile island”), post-game he’s philosophical. “I rarely back down from anybody, which doesn’t mean you’re not going to get killed. It just means you’re going to compete.”

When Adonal talks about the allure of the NBA lifestyle, you hear distinct echoes of his Canouan granny. “It’s an unbelievable lifestyle,” he says. “We have a lot of money, which affords us the opportunity to do a lot of good things, but sometimes we could also do a lot of bad things with that money, and to a certain extent you’re pulled from a lot of different directions. But you have to fight it, because it’s not real.”

As a result, when he isn’t playing or training at the Warriors’ plush facility in downtown Oakland, Adonal leads a modest  life, especially by NBA standards. He has a comfortable but by no means lavish one-bedroom apartment on a hill overlooking the city, and drives a Toyota 4Runner Limited Edition SUV that cost him around $40,000 (and it hurt to pay that, he says). In his free time he does community work on behalf of the Warriors, especially in anti-drugs education and literacy. He loves to read, writes poetry, and is learning to play the piano. He’s well-liked in the community, but not so popular he can’t walk down the street.

Adonal is not the wealthiest player in the NBA (his first three-year contract was worth around US$4.25m, and in 2000 he re-signed with the Warriors for US$3.58m for four years), but he has used his still considerable earnings to help his family and send 18-year-old Augustine, the youngest of the four Foyles, to a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. In 2000, Marian Foyle was also able to enrol at the New York Culinary Institute with help from her brother.

He has also been using his summers to further his own education. “By the time I retire, hopefully I’ll have a Ph.D. in history and a Master’s in sports psychology, and I think I want to go back and maybe teach at some point,” he says. “If I don’t do that I want to get involved in restructuring the educational system in the Caribbean. I think we need to focus our resources on educating the youngsters and giving them the opportunity to go to college and become scientists and doctors and stuff like that.”

Adonal Foyle may not be the NBA’s biggest star, but when you consider that, of the millions of young people who play basketball, maybe a fraction of one percent of them make it to the world’s most prestigious basketball league, and that the average length of time players spend there is only four years, he’s already ahead of the game. Garry St Jean believes that, with good health, Adonal can play ten years in the NBA.

So it’s Adonal Foyle Night at the Ashton basketball court. The population of Union Island starts trickling in and the bleachers gradually fill to bursting. The guest of honour arrives. He gets on the court and does his warm-up, then joins the cluster of kids around the ring, pulling aside a couple of them for one-on-ones. Then he assembles his team and lectures them briefly on strategy and team spirit and takes them through a warm-up routine.

“The NBA would kill me,” Adonal says, grinning. But that evening he saunters out on to the concrete anyway, and plays his heart out.

The author thanks Caribbean Sports Digest for their kind assistance in researching this article