Guest speaker Melvin Adams prepares to spin a basketball on Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell's finger during the Pillars of America program at Centennial Hall on Wednesday. Adams is the first of three speakers in the weekly series hosted by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club. Tiana Tozer is next week's speaker followed by Warren Moon on May 4.

Guest speaker Melvin Adams prepares to spin a basketball on Juneau Police Department Lt. Kris Sell's finger during the Pillars of America program at Centennial Hall on Wednesday. Adams is the first of three speakers in the weekly series hosted by the Juneau Glacier Valley Rotary Club. Tiana Tozer is next week's speaker followed by Warren Moon on May 4.

Former Globetrotter inspires at Pillars of America

Former professional basketball player and Harlem Globetrotter Melvin Adams faced abuse and poverty on his way to success, but he recalls it all with the timing of a stand-up comedian and the love of a preacher.

Adams opened the Pillars of America speaker series at Centennial Hall on Wednesday afternoon. With over 200 young people in attendance, he spoke with candor and humor about the challenges he’s faced.

“Growing up as a kid, I had a dream to play professional basketball,” he said. “My dad was 6’6”, my brothers were 6’8”, 6’7”, 6’2”. My mother was 5’3” and my aunts were Ewoks on Star Wars, but I had a dream. I was the shortest on every team I played for, but I was also the cutest. Whatever you want to do in life, there will be obstacles.”

Adams is only 5’8”, but being smaller than his teammates was the least of his childhood obstacles.

“I grew up short, grew up in poverty. Mother was abusive, father wasn’t around,” Adams recounted. “I could have made all the excuses, but I didn’t. I began to shoot 300 jump shots a day, run three miles a day. I used to drive my mother’s car on the freeways in Houston at about 4 in the morning, open the door and dribble the ball at 5 miles an hour until I could do it at 10.”

Adams spent his youth single-mindedly devoted to basketball, trying to work hard enough to earn the love and approval he never had. Adams described him self as a “hurt” and “angry” kid, but credits two educators with helping him develop the self-esteem he needed to pull himself from suicidal thoughts to two NCAA III All-American teams at San Jose Christian College.

“Ms. Eaton would come to school every day and she would say, ‘You’re awesome,’” Adams recalled. “She said I was amazing and I said, ‘I’m not Spiderman.’ She gave me my first birthday party when I was 12 years old and I went from making straight Fs to the honor role my sophomore, junior and senior year, to being the first one to graduate from college in my family. My coach drove me to one of the richest areas and pointed to a house and said, ‘You can live in a house like that.’ I was on MTV Cribs twice because a teacher told me I could.”

Adams grew up in an abusive household, but has “pressed reset” in his personal life by refusing to continue the cycle of abuse.

“Every day is a new day to press restart. … What would make a dad beat his wife and beat his kids? What would make a mom not tell her children she loves them? … I found out my daddy’s daddy was married 18 times. … What kids see, they practice, and what they practice, the become. … Three of my own aunts married abusive men, the same men they said when they were little girls they would never marry men like that. But the cycle kept going. Then for me, I learned how to press restart and change the cycle of my generation.”

After retiring from pro basketball in 2000, the athlete turned to inspirational speaking to fulfill his dream of making a difference in the lives of young people.

Adams passed up a career in comedy and acting to speak to over 8 million students at public schools across the country. He says that he sees the results of his work every day.

“Words can change lives. Just recently I got a call to go to Dallas, speaking to kids from third grade to fifth grade, and I go to the principal and I say, ‘Show me a young girl who needs to be motivated.’ … So I bring this girl up and I spin the ball on her fingers. … She takes me outside and she says, ‘You’ve said more positive words to me in four minutes than my mom and dad have said to me my whole life.’”

Pillars of America’s next speaker — paralympian, author and humanitarian aid worker Tiana Tozer — appears at 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, April 27 at Centennial Hall. Tickets can be purchased at Hearthside Books.

• Contact Sports Editor Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.