RICHLAND -- Watching 7-foot-2-inch James Donaldson be surrounded by children is a bit like imagining Gulliver amidst a throng of tiny Lilliputians.
There aren't many people Donaldson doesn't tower over with his extraordinary height -- even his fellow NBA players during his 20-year career in professional basketball.
But the message he had for about two dozen Tri-City kids sitting on a gymnasium floor at Richland's Central United Protestant Church on Wednesday was that it isn't just physical stature that makes someone the tallest person in the room -- it's attitude that makes the man or woman, he said.
"I wasn't a pro athlete because I was 7 feet tall," Donaldson said. "I was a pro athlete because I had a good attitude."
Donaldson has turned his experiences playing basketball for Washington State University, the Seattle SuperSonics, San Diego Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz, as well as his community involvement and experience owning his own physical therapy business, into a book called Standing Above the Crowd, designed to inspire and motivate anyone looking to lead a successful life.
In particular, he emphasizes the importance of having mentors -- a message he drove home to the children in the church gymnasium.
"Mentoring is a huge, huge piece of my life that helped keep me on track and make good decisions," he said.
He said his mentors ranged from the crossing guards in Seattle who made sure he stood up straight when he was 10 years old to the basketball coaches who later guided his career.
Donaldson's visit to Richland was at the impromptu invitation of Ignite Youth Mentoring, a local nonprofit that works to connect at-risk youths with adult mentors who can be positive role models and help guide the children to make good choices that will keep them in school and out of the system.
The nonprofit was started by Todd Kleppin, who spent nine years as a youth pastor at Central United Protestant Church before taking over as Ignite's executive director full-time in January.
As a youth pastor, Kleppin saw a lot of children and teenagers in the community whom no one was reaching, and who weren't learning basic life skills or how to make good choices, such as staying in school and avoiding alcohol and drugs.
"We want to help build the kid up -- help them establish good life skills, good values and a good sense of self-worth and purpose," Kleppin said. "Through a relationship with someone outside of their world, they can see a world that can give them a little bit of hope for the future."
Donaldson emphasized to the children at the church that their future success will come from within. They have to learn to tune out negative voices and believe in their own abilities.
"Sometimes we get opportunities in life where we're faced with a challenge, and we're either going to tackle that challenge or tuck our tails and run," he said. "I want you guys to be able to face challenges and face adversity head-on. Don't be afraid of failure. Don't be afraid of success. ... It's the people who think they can who win."
He encouraged each one of them to complete high school and go to college, to have realistic goals and a back-up plan.
He said he never planned to become a professional athlete -- he started playing basketball because he wanted to go to college.
He ended up getting a basketball scholarship to WSU, where he double-majored in sociology and psychology. His hometown SuperSonics drafted him.
A serious knee injury at age 32 nearly ended his basketball career. That's when he opened his physical therapy business as a back-up plan, even though he went on to play another 10 years.
He also told them to make an agreement with themselves for something they want to achieve, and then do it.
Donaldson's promise to himself was that he would never drink alcohol or do drugs. He's kept that promise for 40 years.
"My question is, 'What is your promise to you?' "