James Donaldson's journey
by Scott Holter | © Washington State University
On a characteristically gloomy fall morning near the city that he calls home, seven-foot two-inch James Donaldson, an ex-professional athlete who played two decades in the National Basketball Association and overseas, was taking part in something typical of his life after basketball.
He was reading to a second-grader at an elementary school in Tacoma.
"It's important for me to work with youth, minority populations, and the impoverished in any way I can," says Donaldson '79, who lives in Seattle, but travels south once each week as part of a program for grades one through three. "And that includes my businesses, where many of these people have not had services like we provide."
For his service to the community and success as an entrepreneur, which includes three Donaldson Fitness Centers and Clinics located in less-affluent neighborhoods in Seattle, Tacoma, and Mill Creek, Donaldson was named the 2005 recipient of the Jeri McDonald Community Service Award.
The annual honor is named for McDonald, also a WSU graduate, and leading Seattle public relations executive, who died of cancer in 2001.
"Jeri was a tremendous woman, a staunch Cougar, and a savvy business person," says Donaldson, who knew McDonald for years through their involvement with the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, which helped sponsor the award. "This kind of an award means much more to me than anything I accomplished in athletics or business. I've made it my own personal mission to give back to the community, and to be recognized for that is something special."
Donaldson opened his initial business in Mill Creek in 1990, a physical therapy center that drew his interest after he suffered a substantial knee injury two years earlier. Drafted by the Seattle Supersonics in the 1979 NBA draft-the same year Magic Johnson was the first overall pick by Los Angeles-after two successful years in Pullman, Donaldson played for five different NBA teams. But he knew early on that there would be more to his life than pro basketball.
"I wanted it to be a stepping-stone to the rest of my life, and that makes me different from a lot of [the other pro athletes]," he says.
"I always said I would play until I was 40, and then I would focus on something else. Well, I retired at 42, and rehabilitation was the focus."
By the time Donaldson hung up the high tops for good in 2000, the Donaldson Clinic was thriving. But he wanted more, a place that combined different aspects of a healthy lifestyle, physical fitness, and rehabilitation. He wanted people to visit whether they were injured or not. And he wanted to put his centers in the right locations, hoping to make each one a cog in revitalizing the neighborhood around it.
For a low initiation fee and small monthly stipend, Donaldson members receive aerobic and strength training, physical profile assessments, massage, and nutritional services.
Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood welcomed the second center in 2001, and another opened in Seattle's Central Area, where Donaldson's vertical stature and hardcourt resume have made him a bit of a local hero.
"What I learned in the NBA-and at WSU-are helping me today in leading a team," he says. "I'm now the coach instead of the player, and sports taught me the value of team play, and the ups and downs of business and life."
He is also a leader away from the office. As a member of the Breakfast Group, Donaldson works hard with other African American men from Seattle to be a mentor to the youth in these neighborhoods.
"We strive to be positive role models and to reach out to the community whenever we can," he says.
Donaldson learned early from role models in his own life: his father, who was in the Air Force, and his high school basketball coach in Sacramento, California, who saw the potential in a kid who didn't play basketball until his senior year.
"Then there was [former WSU coach] George Raveling, who took a chance on me and offered me a scholarship," Donaldson remembers. "He was a father figure who saw me as a student athlete. He rolled the dice with me, gave me the keys to the weight room and the gym, and told me those keys would open all sorts of doors for me.
"He told me if I applied myself, the sky was the limit."
His first career is over. His next is just beginning. And with all apologies to Raveling, it appears that the sky in James Donaldson's life has no limit.