NBA’s Nelson helps kick off YMCA push

KAHULUI – To kick off the Maui Family YMCA Annual Community Support Campaign, members of the community, including NBA player and Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson, shared their “Y-stories.”

“When there wasn’t a game, I would go upstairs to play basketball on the handball courts,” Nelson said to a crowd of about 50 people on Friday at the Kahului branch. “That’s actually where I learned how to shoot with my left hand.”

The right-handed Nelson, who lives with his wife in Paia, started playing basketball in the 7th grade, spending most of his time at his local YMCA in Rock Island, Ill.

However, he was never a member of the association.

“I would sneak in,” he said.

In an interview before his talk, Nelson said that his family of farmers could not afford to pay the membership, and when they lost the farm they were forced to move to a rough part of town. He would go there every day in the summer, staying from opening to closing.

“It actually saved me,” he said. “A lot of my friends were getting in trouble, when I was going to the ‘Y,’ they were doing other things. A lot of them got in big trouble, and I probably would’ve been right there with them.”

By the time he reached high school, he was starting to get recognized for his play on the court, including by the director of the YMCA.

“The director found I was sneaking and when I started to become a pretty good player he said, ‘Anytime you want to come, you just come right through the office,'” said Nelson. “And I said, ‘Really?’ . . . I mean, he knew I was sneaking in and he would see me and say, ‘Goddamn it, Nel.'”

Nelson played basketball at the YMCA until he reached college, where he was a two-time All-American for the University of Iowa. He continued his career in the NBA, winning five championships with the Boston Celtics and becoming the all-time winningest coach in NBA history, with 1,333 victories.

In September, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame and gave, what he believed to be, his final speech.

Mike Morris, president and CEO of Maui Family YMCA, thought otherwise.

“Dan Goodfellow (a YMCA board member and friend of Nelson) and I met with him and said, ‘Well, we got one more that we would like you to do,'” he said.

The Maui-based association board members, who are hoping to raise $128,000 in 2013, were looking for a speaker who could energize their annual campaign.

“We were in a meeting and talking about how we’re gonna kick this campaign off,” Morris said. “It’s kind of stalled for us the past couple of years . . . we need a speaker that can kick this thing off, motivate people and get it energized.”

Nelson’s name was the first to come up, and after giving his speech on Friday, he and his wife donated a $1,000 check to the campaign.

“You can make a difference,” Nelson said to the crowd.

Donations fund various programs within the YMCA, including the Financial Assistance Program, said Morris. Every year, the program provides support for low-income families and memberships at reduced prices or free of charge.

“When (Nelson) was there, he didn’t pay anything when he came to the ‘Y,'” Morris said. “Still today, people need the Y’s help, whether parents need something for their kids to do during the summertime or after-school care. . . . This campaign allows them to do that.”

Kamiki Carter, a family case manager with Maui Economic Opportunity’s Head Start Program, also spoke at the event as a partner and member of the YMCA.

The federally funded Head Start Program, which helps low-income families send their children to preschool, was looking for a place that could provide reliable child care for its members.

Carter said that the YMCA was a perfect fit and, while choking back tears, said that the association helped her personally.

“There are no words that can express how grateful I am,” said the mother of two special-needs children. “People don’t understand what it’s like to have a child that’s not like other children. . . . (The YMCA) continues to support me and my family, and I just want to say mahalo.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at