New Play On Hoop Dreams

When Marc Upshaw ’84 and Sam Mitchell were teenage basketball players in Columbus, Ga., running the high school hardwood in winter and sweating on steamy playgrounds in summer, they dreamed big.

And one day they made a pact. If each became successful, they’d return to Columbus someday and do something good for the community, to share their success.

Consider that a promise fulfilled. For eight years, Upshaw and Mitchell, a former NBA player and coach, have run the SaMarc Dream and Achieve Foundation, offering basketball and education programs at an annual summer camp held at Columbus State University.

Besides playing basketball, the youngsters who attend the camp also visit learning centers, apply for college scholarships, and take field trips to places like New York City, Washington, D.C., and the Bahamas. There is no tuition fee.

“Basketball is the carrot,” Upshaw said by telephone. “Let’s face it. If we ran a science camp, we wouldn’t get many kids. But basketball is one component. It’s about a lot more than basketball.”

By any measure outside professional sports, Upshaw is a success. His day job is as founder and CEO of Global Diagnostic Services, Inc., which specializes in performing on-site diagnostic testing, X-rays, and medical staffing, primarily for correctional institutions. When he visits prisons, Upshaw meets inmates with third grade educations and dead-end futures outside the penitentiary walls.

“The line between making it and not making it is so thin,” he said. “And the key to me is education. I was so fortunate to be able to earn a college degree, and it’s been a blessing. That is something we emphasize at the camp. I thought we’d see an impact after seven or eight years, but we saw an impact in the first two years. We’re giving kids opportunities.”

He cites examples: A boy fulfilled a dream by getting to tour inside the White House. A trip to the NASA Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., inspired another boy to dream of life as an astronaut. And a foundation scholarship has funded the final classes toward a nursing degree at Columbus State for a young woman who left college early because of pregnancy.

In addition to basketball and cultural experiences, the camp also focuses on comportment. Kids learn how to dress in a professional setting, how to prepare for interviews, and other life skills. “These are things they will have to know how to do,” Upshaw said. “These are skills that go beyond sports.”

When SaMarc’s founders were young, Upshaw was the basketball star. Mitchell, two years his junior, was his tall buddy who’d yet to fill out his lanky frame. Upshaw took Mitchell under his wing as a de facto little brother. “I was the star at the time,” Upshaw said. “But Sam’s the one who made it to the NBA. I didn’t. Things can end up differently than you expect.”

Upshaw’s own life certainly defied expectations. While he was in high school, his cousin, Claude English ’72, who was then assistant basketball coach for URI, talked him into visiting the campus. Upshaw bonded with fellow recruit Roland Houston ’82, still a good friend. Turning down the University of Georgia, Upshaw decided to spend his four college playing years at URI.

At the time, URI was a burgeoning New England power coached by Jack Kraft, Hon. ’78, and later English. Upshaw was an athletic forward, standing six feet, six inches. But in a game at the Providence Civic Center, he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He returned for his senior year but never quite regained the speed and cutting ability that had driven his game.

“Now, 30 years later, they could do a lot more to fix the knee than they could then,” he says. “They didn’t have the same surgeries that they have now.” When he injured his right knee in an Atlanta Hawks summer camp shortly after graduation, he realized he needed to find another way to make a living.

He bounced around, sold sporting goods, and switched to insurance sales. He built his own agency in North Carolina, but moved it to Atlanta, where he and his wife, Debra, were comfortable. The late 1980s recession decimated the business, leading Upshaw to diagram a new play.

“The medical services field seemed recession-proof,” he said. “But I had never taken a medical course in high school or in college.”

Undaunted, Upshaw knocked on doors. He knew sales and, more importantly, knew how to sell himself. He talked his way into a medical company that needed a salesman. He soaked up all the learning he could before becoming his own boss in 1994, when he founded Global Diagnostics with the mission to bring the medical testing equipment to prisoners rather than the other way around.

“And visiting the prisons was part of the incentive for us to start the foundation,” he says.

Upshaw meets plenty of youngsters convinced they are the next LeBron or Kobe. He tries not to douse their dreams, but he also filters in some reality. “It’s the contrast with me and with Sam,” he says. “People thought I would be the one. But Sam ended up playing 13 years in the NBA and was Coach of the Year (2007 with the Toronto Raptors). I had to find success in another way.”

Mitchell, now a sports talk show host and NBA network commentator, still attributes his own success to Upshaw. “Marc showed me the example of hard work and gave me a lot of encouragement,” he says. “Without Marc, I wouldn’t have made it to the NBA. All these years later, I am sure of that.”

Upshaw and his wife Debra are the parents of daughters Diamonn Nicole, 22, and Tyler, 20. Upshaw also has a son from an earlier relationship, John Cruz ’03, who worked as a coordinator in the URI Talent Development program. “I have been given so many blessings from God,” Upshaw says.

He last visited URI about eight years ago, he says, and still has warm feelings for the University. His NBA dream that began in Columbus had to fade when he blew out his knee as a Ram star. But other dreams took root in Kingston. He remembers arriving on campus and settling in to his dorm room, amazed at how far he had traveled, to a situation his parents never could have paid for.

“What Sam and I most have in common isn’t basketball,” Upshaw says now. “It’s that we both earned college degrees. That’s a point we emphasize,” in the SaMarc camp.

For his part, Mitchell still looks up to his mentor. “When we first started the foundation, Marc told me that we would get more out of it than many of the kids,” Mitchell says. “I didn’t understand what he meant at first. But after eight years, now I do. Now I certainly do.”

—Jim Gillis ’81