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No Such Thing as a Free Throw

When a squad of St. Louis Rams plays ball for a local church, everybody benefits


Two years ago, former St. Louis-area schoolboy and University of Kansas hoops star Ryan Robertson led a team of "all-stars" from Calvary Church over an Adam Timmerman-led troupe of St. Louis Rams in an exhibition basketball game at St. Charles West High School. Good sports all, the Rams players stayed long after the buzzer, signing autographs and having their pictures taken with the 1,000-or-so folks in attendance.

The event was such a hoot that Calvary and Timmerman, an All-Pro offensive guard who's a member of the church's congregation, are staging a reprise Friday night at Fort Zumwalt South High School in St. Peters. Although the rosters for both squads are in flux, Robertson is overseas playing for a club team in Holland, and Calvary Pastor Curt Neff, who organized the contest, expects Timmerman and company to prevail this time.

Tickets to this year's hoop-fest are $5 per person, $20 per family. But if history is any indication, Calvary will be lucky to net a single greenback.

"We broke even last time," Neff reveals. In 2001, after covering costs associated with publicity, the pastor explains, he had another payment to make: "The money goes to the Rams. They charge to come out. Two years ago, it was a couple hundred dollars per person."

Rams public-relations director Rick Smith says the team has nothing to do with the Calvary event but that players are free to do what they want in their spare time. "The Rams are not officially involved in this type of thing," says Smith. "The equipment guy might help them roll out balls, but this is essentially something the players do on their own."

Actually, in the case of the Calvary game, the equipment guy -- specifically, assistant equipment manager Jim Lake -- does more than help roll out the balls. He also recruits the players and negotiates the fees.

"I just get the players to show up and make sure players are safe," affirms the 32-year-old Lake, who got his start with the Rams as a shag boy at age thirteen. "It's Rams basketball; it's not the St. Louis Rams. There've been some games that have gotten out of control, and I say, 'Time out.' If a player gets clotheslined, that's an issue to me.

"I like to be there because some promoters promise Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk. That's not going to happen," adds Lake, whose regular-season duties include spotting balls at practice, washing uniforms and hauling gear from city to city. "There was a situation about three years ago with a promoter promising players that weren't even in town."

Lake says he helps organize about four games a year like the one at Calvary. The few hundred dollars' remuneration per player, he says, goes "to cover guys' expenses and make it worth their effort." Sometimes, when the money promises to be bountiful, he takes a cut of the fee for his own services.

The Rams organization stays away from basketball games for liability reasons. Allison Collinger, who works in the club's community-outreach office, says less rigorous events involving bowling and golf do often fall under the club's official philanthropic umbrella, and players are not paid to appear at those affairs. "We do a bowl-a-rama at Tropicana Lanes for the Epilepsy Foundation every year," Collinger offers. "Bowling is a little less stressful on the body than other things."

Collinger says the Rams were unaware of Lake's entrepreneurial moonlighting. "It does raise a question for us," she says. Reiterating that the club has no involvement in the extracurricular basketball activities, she adds, "We're looking into it."

The pay-to-play scenario runs counter to Rams club policy. "All charity appearances that [players] do through the Rams are for free," says Tiffani Wilson, the team's community-outreach coordinator. "When they go to schools, when they go to libraries, guys don't see a penny of it. These are the type of guys that, any time they're at a corporate appearance and get paid money, most of the time I've seen them turn around and give it to some charity."

Then again, the Calvary tilt isn't technically a charity affair. Nowhere in the literature promoting the event are the terms "charity" or "benefit" employed. "Tickets are sold to cover the expenses related with the game. If any proceeds remain, they would go to support the ministries of Calvary Church," Calvary Executive Pastor Mike Sherman clarifies in a statement faxed to Riverfront Times. "However, the purpose of this event is not to raise funds but to provide a fun event for the church family and for the community."

Marc Pollick is founder and president of the Giving Back Fund, a Boston-based nonprofit that advises athletes off the field. "Usually these things are for charity -- it gives the public the chance to see the players in a different light," he notes.

As an example, Pollick cites a recent basketball event involving members of the New England Patriots. That contest, a production of Patriot safety Lawyer Milloy's nonprofit foundation, was held at the University of Massachusetts and was underwritten by several blue-chip firms. More than 2,000 fans, mostly disadvantaged children, attended for free as a Boston Police Department all-star team squeaked by a squad that included Milloy and popular Patriots Tom Brady, Troy Brown and Kevin Faulk, according to Mellon Financial Corporation's Marianne Driscoll, who organized the game. The event, Driscoll says, raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity. The players received no monetary compensation. "They got nothing," Driscoll asserts. "U-Mass gave me their hockey rink for a twenty-minute appearance. They stayed there for one hour and signed autographs. Troy Brown usually goes to West Virginia for the weekend, but he stayed. Kevin Faulk usually goes back to New Orleans for the weekend, but he stayed."

It's hardly unusual for athletes to be compensated for appearing at trade shows, corporate conventions or charity events. But players of the caliber of, say, Rams quarterback Kurt Warner typically attract well-heeled contributors who more than make up for the outlay. That's not the case at Calvary.

"The onus falls as much on the charity to ask if that fee can be waived as it does on the athlete," asserts Hadley Morash, executive director of the Boston-based MVPhilanthropy, which counsels athletes on philanthropic matters. "It seems if you're only raising a small amount of money to pay costs, that isn't a wise move by the charity. I know appearance fees are pretty standard at trade shows. If they were just going to sign autographs, they would get a pretty substantial fee for that. These guys should have been asked to waive their appearance fee, and I would hope that they would."

Timmerman, a generous philanthropist who gives regularly to the United Way and other charities, doesn't see a problem with the Calvary arrangement. "A lot of the cases, it's away from where guys live. I won't be getting paid anything. I never really have," he says. "I think some of the guys do that. It just depends on who you are. Some of the guys who play are younger."

Moreover, the offensive lineman is concerned that calling attention to the fee aspect might have negative repercussions. "Guys aren't going play in games, and then you're going to hurt charities," Timmerman predicts. "I think you're just trying to drag some players through the mud here."

Lake says he suggested ways in which Calvary could leverage its event to raise more money. "When I discussed this with Curt [Neff] on the phone, I discussed a lot of ways they could make money," says Lake. "They just want the experience. Their congregation is pretty strong, and their finances are in shape. Curt has dealt with me before; he knows what the fee is. If ticket sales aren't good, we're not gonna make them take a loss. We're flexible in what we charge. There's not a flat fee."

Agrees Neff: "The whole purpose of us doing this is to create a fun evening for people at our church. Some of those guys who aren't first-stringers, maybe it's a way for them to make some extra money."

Doubtless that extra money came in handy on top of the NFL's $300,000 minimum salary for veterans ($225,000 for rookies).

Last month, Vianney High School staged an exhibition basketball game that pitted a team of faculty members against a crew of Rams at St. Louis Community College-Meramec. According to Pete Cerone of Vianney's development office, that event was organized by Lake's boss, Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt. "Todd's son, junior Travis Hewitt, is Vianney's starting quarterback," Cerone explains. "I did a lot of the PR for the event, tied up a lot of the little odds and ends. We put together a little program for it. We had T-shirts made. We rented out the gym at Meramec. All the Rams did it for free. They didn't ask for anything for their appearance. They sign autographs. They take pictures with the kids.

"The Rams beat us the last two years," Cerone adds. "They're much better athletes than our faculty."

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