Donaldson finds it in business and community


James Donaldson would like you to know that he’s fine not playing basketball. Sure, the former Washington State center spent 20 seasons in the National Basketball Association and on the European circuit. And yes, it brought him some nice paychecks and an opportunity to compete at the highest levels of professional basketball. But it’s never been a case of “basketball is life.”

Now don’t get the wrong picture. Donaldson still misses the competition. Still misses the practices–really–and the nightly face-off in games.

But here’s the ugly side of pro sports—it’s cutthroat. Younger players are always brought in to supplant veterans. If you should suffer a severe injury, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever make it back.

Donaldson knows that. He went down with a career-threatening knee injury in 1988 while playing for the Dallas Mavericks. Ever the optimist, he saw inspiration, and the course his post-basketball days would take was shaped then.

“The light bulb came on,” he says. “I became interested in physical therapy . . . in really wanting to help people.”

His WSU degree is in sociology (1979).

“I love to learn,” he says. Even when he was playing professionally, teammates would tease him when they found him reading books in the locker room. Later, he began taking physical therapy courses, and hopes to be licensed soon.

Meanwhile, he has directed his entrepreneurial talents toward the establishment of three physical therapy clinics in the Puget Sound area.

He opened the first Donaldson Clinic in 1990 at Mill Creek, a trendy suburb just off the busy I-5 corridor between Seattle and Everett. He handpicked a group of top-notch specialists to address clients’ PT and rehabilitation needs.

As business increased, the Donaldson Clinic grew. He acquired a clinic in Cashmere. It has since been relocated to the Central Area in Seattle and is scheduled to re-open later this year or early 2004. A third clinic opened two years ago in Tacoma’s Hilltop area. Each clinic was the product of meticulous planning.

Both the Hilltop Area and Central Area are in poor, low-income districts.

“We were one of the first businesses to open in the Hilltop Area,” Donaldson says. “It was deemed this dangerous, gang-infested place, but it’s been cleaned up, and we saw a chance to offer opportunities to those living there.” The clinic has become one of the cornerstones in the area’s recent revitalization.

Donaldson’s people-first, humanistic approach was molded while he was growing up in Sacramento, California.

A shy youth, uncomfortable with his height, he was nervous about going out for basketball, uncertain about the glare and spotlight a 7-foot-2 teenager was bound to attract.

“He came in tall, awkward, and overweight,” says his high school coach, Chuck Calhoun, who covered the gym’s windows so kids couldn’t peek in, and practiced with Donaldson one-on-one. Slowly and with patience, Calhoun worked with Donaldson, helping him become comfortable with his body and his game.

Amazingly, the center drew little interest from college recruiters, until Calhoun bumped into then-WSU basketball coach George Raveling at a coaching clinic in Nevada. Over a couple of beers Calhoun mentioned a seven-footer he had. Two weeks later, Donaldson visited Pullman. He stayed.

Following a distinguished career in a Cougar uniform, he took his talents to the NBA. There he played for several teams, including the Seattle Sonics. Before retiring in 2000, he spent his last four seasons playing in Europe.

Now Donaldson is involved with more organizations than a political candidate. He donates time to the NAACP; the Urban League; the Breakfast Group, an African American organization; the Gray W Club, varsity letter-winners; and as a community relations representative for the Seattle Sonics.

“I always knew that when my playing career was over, I wanted to help people,” Donaldson says. “There were people in my life who taught me the value of responsibility. I want to blaze a trail for young people to give back to their communities.”