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The Hero Takes a Ball

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You're OK, he's OK.
  • You're OK, he's OK.
Five hundred anxious schoolchildren are filing into the gymnasium at Brush Elementary School in Grafton for a special assembly. Standing inside the music room, Harlem Globetrotter Otis "OK" Key awaits his grand entrance, nervously spinning the trademark red, white, and blue basketball on his fingertip.

Key, the designated "Goodwill Ambassador" for the Harlem Globetrotters -- a team full of goodwill ambassadors -- is visiting the school thanks to sixth-grader Victoria Petrosky's winning essay on "How You Can Be an Everyday Hero." The essay contest is a community relations initiative the Globetrotters promote in every city they visit.

"The measure of a hero is not how tall you stand, how wealthy or intelligent you are," Petrosky wrote. "The measure of a hero is what is found inside your heart."

The young girl's words strike a nerve in the world of sports, where the athletes stand tall and sign multimillion-dollar contracts, but don't necessarily exercise heroic behavior on or off the court.

"It's hard to be an ambassador of goodwill when you're out getting a DUI, choking your players, or showing up in wedding dresses," says the six-foot-nine Key, referring to numerous recent examples of high-profile stars behaving badly. "It don't take too much to keep your nose clean -- just good judgment."

Growing up as the oldest of five kids in the small town of Russellville, Kentucky (his younger brother played with Tim Couch), Key naturally became a role model for his siblings.

"If I wanted them to be successful, then I had to stay away from the different troubles that are out there, and I'm glad I took that path."

Now in his second year with the team, the Lincoln University graduate initially turned down a tryout invitation from the Globetrotters' chief scout, who spotted him playing in a college all-star game.

"I thought it was a joke, so I declined the offer and went overseas to Spain and played for two years," he says.

But upon his return home, the scout contacted him again. "I had just finished watching them play their 20,000th game," says Key. "Curly Johnson brought out a girl with cerebral palsy to spin a ball on her finger, and something the sports announcer said made me realize it was an opportunity of a lifetime."

This time, Key took the scout's offer, tried out against 76 others, and earned one of seven roster spots. He now plays a rigorous schedule of 250 to 300 games a year -- roughly 200 games more than any NBA player -- and has already declined a couple of offers from NBA teams.

"It's by choice," he says. "I had a chance to join Atlanta, and later I had another chance to go on to Chicago. And I asked myself, "Why would I only go to 29 cities when I can go around the world and be a Harlem Globetrotter?'"

The 25-year-old has lived up to his Globetrotter namesake, visiting 19 countries on six continents since joining the team. But travel opportunities aside, aren't the fat-cat salaries of NBA players just the least bit tempting?

"We're not in it for the million-dollar contracts," says Key. "We're in it for the million-dollar smiles. Once we get to the gym, the lights go down, and the smoke starts coming, and you hear the crowd and see the kids and their faces -- it's a wonderful feeling."

The pokey whistling of the team's trademark song, "Sweet Georgia Brown," begins to emanate from the Brush Elementary gym, where the kids are fidgeting in their seats, awaiting Key's entrance.

"I've fulfilled my job as an ambassador of goodwill if I can touch a kid. Whether it's a simple, "Hey what's up?,' a smile -- anything to give them something positive to look at."

As Victoria Petrosky will tell you, that's what being a hero is all about.

-- Ginger Burnett

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