Members of the Charlotte Bobcats basketball organization stand behind closed doors, hearing the muffled speech of the audience that awaits them. They breathe heavily as the anticipation builds, knowing their fans have high expectations of them. As they push through the door, they walk not onto a basketball court, but into the street, where they are serving Thanksgiving dinner to those in Charlotte who would otherwise go without.
The chief operations officer and president of the organization, Fred Whitfield, was one of these men, there on behalf of Cats Care, the Bobcats 501(c)3 nonprofit. Whitfield oversees the nonprofit and helps organize events. He said it felt good to be out there on the day before Thanksgiving, serving the community.
“It was amazing to see how many people turned out that day,” he says. “We served over 4,000 people, and each one would light up when they saw the players. They couldn’t be more thankful and were genuinely appreciative.
“Doing acts of kindness, giving some real sweat equity, really makes our guys realize how truly blessed they are.”
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Cats Care began two years ago after Michael Jordan bought the Bobcats team. Whitfield says creating a community outreach program was something Jordan insisted on from the beginning. He says Jordan wanted an “organized, systematic strategy to have a huge impact on the community.”
“Most of what you hear about Michael is that he’s not involved or engaged,” says Whitfield. “But it’s the exact opposite. Cats Care was his idea because he knew we could do more for the community together than any of us could do alone.”
Whitfield says the nonprofit focuses on three pillars of need: health and fitness, hunger and education issues.
“Last year, we focused on health and fitness and reached out to a lot of the local, underprivileged youth,” he says. “We knew that childhood obesity was a major issue, and we wanted to help teach kids healthy lifestyle choices.”
The nonprofit reached out to local youth by holding camps, such as the Stay Active Clinic, where players Reggie Williams and Derrick Brown worked with kids of the Belmont Avenue Boys & Girls Club on basketball drills.
“The kids really look up to the players,” says Whitfield. “But it’s not just because they are athletes, but also because they are so kind. It’s a great feeling to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when they interact with our guys.”
In 2011, the nonprofit donated $250,000 to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to save middle school sports, which at the time were in danger of being cut because of funding issues.
“It felt so good to be able to do that for the kids of Charlotte,” Whitfield says. “And it was just perfect that our focus was on health and fitness that year. It was like it was meant to be.”
This year, the nonprofit is focusing on hunger issues in Charlotte.
“We were very surprised to learn that hunger was such a huge problem in Charlotte,” he says. “We knew that we wanted to help in whatever way we could.”
The nonprofit and their community partners, including Wells Fargo, set a season-long community service goal of 40,000 hours. As of April 2012, they have completed 47,470 hours, even with the late start of the season in January.
“For us, it’s more than just donating money to a cause,” says Whitfield. “It’s about a commitment we made to the community to help better it. We are out there, hammering nails and passing out turkeys to members of our community, because it’s the right thing to do.”
This year during the annual Cats Care Day of Service, the nonprofit donated $250,000 to the Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina to help eliminate hunger in Charlotte and surrounding cities. The Bobcats team, including owner Michael Jordan, made appearances for the donation.
“From the very top down, we have all made a commitment to make the Charlotte community the best place to live, work and play,” says Whitfield. “We have every intention of earning our way in this community.”
Whitfield has a personal connection to Cats Care. He has run a basketball camp for 28 years that is free for underprivileged kids. He’s also on the board of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte and donates his own personal funds to various charities.
“I just love working with Cats Care,” says Whitfield. “It’s something that means a lot in my life.”
It’s Whitfield’s own personal commitment and passion for community outreach that inspires the Bobcats players to make their own individual contributions to the people of Charlotte.
He told the story of Kemba Walker, who once heard of a young boy who saved up his money to buy two tickets to a game for him and his dad, but the child ended up in the hospital with an illness and couldn’t make the game. Walker visited the boy in the hospital, reached out to his family and made sure they had tickets to another game.
“We really have a great group of players,” says Whitfield. “As part of the NBA lockout agreement, the basketball players are required to do mandatory appearances, but our guys aren’t out there because they have to be. They love doing it.”
To learn more about Cats Care, visit www.nbs.com/bobcats and click on Community.