A slam dunk

By Mark Baker | Living Here | |

Ten-year-old Lauren Cullins pondered the question — “What’s the most important thing you heard him say?”

“In school, we talk about bullying, but we don’t really talk about making the bully your friend. That was helpful,” the Camas Ridge Community School student said. “His speech was really inspiring, and he was really funny.”

Monday was Presidents’ Day, a no-school day for kids in Eugene, and more than 100 of them flooded into the Eugene Family YMCA to get some sage advice from a “really tall” (Lauren’s words) man who grew up in Columbus, Ohio.

He entered the gym dressed in the red, white and blue of the Harlem Globetrotters with a red, white and blue basketball spinning on his index finger.

But 6-foot-8-inch Julian “Zeus” McClurkin wasn’t there just to talk basketball and show off his world record skills (most dunks in one minute, 15, according to Guinness World Records).

“What is the No. 1 action you should take if you see someone being bullied?” McClurkin asked the kids and their parents, before supplying his own answer.

“The best thing to do is tell a teacher or your parents or another adult,” said McClurkin, 29. “I know you might be looked at as a tattletale, but you’re actually helping that person down the line.”

The world-famous Globetrotters — known as the Ambassadors of Goodwill, in addition to their eye-popping hoop tricks — are celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. And, as they do every February, they are playing at Matthew Knight Arena, on Thursday.

But before he takes the floor against those hapless Washington Generals, McClurkin is helping spread the word about something called The Great Assist, in both Eugene and Portland on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Launched last fall, the program encourages Globetrotter fans to visit greatassist.com and nominate worthwhile causes or deserving families in need of a smile.

It also includes a partnership with the National Campaign to Stop Violence, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce violence and its effects on the lives of young people.

McClurkin, who told the Y crowd that he didn’t make a school basketball team roster until his junior year of high school — “What!?” a child yelped — explained the “ABCs of bullying prevention” to the kids.

“Let me hear you say ‘Action!’ ” he hollered.

“ACTION!” they screamed back.

“Now, I need everyone to say ‘Bravery!’”

“BRAVERY!” they bellowed.

“And ‘C’ stands for compassion,” McClurkin said, his voice now softer. “Everyone say, ‘Compassion.’ ”

“Compassion,” they murmured.

McClurkin talked about the Globetrotters’ history and origin. They were founded in 1926 in Chicago (not New York City’s predominantly black Harlem district).

He talked about how the Globetrotters broke the color barrier, playing in front of all-white crowds, as well as “the female barrier,” hiring the first woman Globetrotter, Lynette Woodard, in 1985.

And, of course, he laid down a thunderous reverse dunk before heading off to visit other kids in the pediatric unit at Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.

At the Y, McClurkin told a story about an older girl who bullied him, making fun of the way he sang, in a music class when he was in school.

He told the teacher every time, he said.

“And she would get caught, and she would get in trouble,” McClurkin said.

He had a few kids stand in front of the crowd and share their own thoughts.

A girl named Abigail then whispered in McClurkin’s ear.

“She gave the perfect answer,” McClurkin told the crowd. “She said you should make that person your friend.

“All you have to do is make that person your friend for the day,” he added. “You don’t have to make them your best friend.”

Blake Sabbato, 11, a Roosevelt Middle School student, said McClurkin “was fun and kid-friendly,” and his reverse dunk was cool to see.

Bryce Boggs, 7, an Edgewood Elementary School student, said “no bullying” was for sure the message he took away, although he probably won’t soon forget McClurkin showing his father, Drew Boggs, how to bounce a basketball off his rear end during a “Magic Circle” drill performed as that familiar, whistling Globetrotter music played.

On ‘Smile Patrol’

McClurkin was still in top form when he got to RiverBend. “I think it’s an amazing opportunity we get,” he said after visiting four children at the hospital.

“Kids look up to us. And we’re going to try to spread as many smiles as we can over the next 10 years,” he said of The Great Assist program.

At RiverBend, McClurkin was joined by members of the Portland Superheroes Coalition.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “I’ve been to hospitals before, and nobody like these ‘Superheroes’ or the Harlem Globetrotters ever came there.”

At the hospital, McClurkin talked about dealing with something called “exercise-induced” asthma, a narrowing of the airways in his lungs that is triggered by strenuous exercise. He still carries an inhaler with him.

“It’s not as severe a case as severe asthma, but it only comes up whenever I exert myself,” McClurkin said. “I tell kids everywhere, as long as you know what your triggers are, you can push through your asthma and get through that. My triggers were exercise. I know that as long as I took my inhaler two hours before any type of strenuous activity, I can do anything.”

The sight of McClurkin cramming his tall frame into a RiverBend elevator with the likes of Spider-Man, Captain America and TheRealRoboDuck, for the ride to the pediatrics unit on the eighth floor, was a surreal scene that had hospital staff and visitors chuckling.

But they were there to make kids grin, not adults.

“This is called ‘Smile Patrol,’” McClurkin said afterward. “If we can put a smile on these kids’ faces, then I did my job.”

Katelyn Beecher, 11, of Mapleton, couldn’t stop grinning when McClurkin and the cast of costumed characters unexpectedly surrounded her bed.

“I have a couple of tricks for you, watch this,” McClurkin said, spinning that three-colored basketball on his index finger, then holding it on hers.

“You know how I got so tall?” McClurkin said, after giving Katelyn an autographed picture and some toys. “I drank a lot of milk.”

“That was so much fun,” said Katelyn, who is in the hospital with Type 1 diabetes, after McClurkin and the superheroes left the room. Her parents, Jason and Whisper Beecher, and sister Brooklyn, 7, were keeping her company.

Jason Beecher seconded his daughter’s assessment. “That was awesome,” he said.