Kyle Kuzma's dream of having a LeBron-like impact on his hometown

Sep 14, 2018 | by Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN

FLINT, Mich. -- Kyle Kuzma is standing on the YMCA basketball court where he spent countless hours working on his game growing up. A decade ago, this was where Kuzma insulated himself in a basketball bubble that protected him from drugs, violence, gangs and peer pressure.

On this August day, Kuzma is back at his safe place in his hometown, surrounded by 22 kids who are doing the same thing the Los Angeles Lakers forward did when he was a kid: staying safe off the streets and dreaming big.

But over the past few years, the kids in Flint have dealt with an obstacle even Kuzma didn't have to face, something that could leave a permanent impact on some of their lives.

In a city that already has been decimated by crime, poverty and the earlier crumble of the automobile industry in Michigan, children and adults alike have to worry about the water they drink, shower in and use to cook simple food like spaghetti because of the Flint water crisis.

On this day, the kids from the Safe Places Program at the Flint YMCA aren't thinking about the water as they pepper Kuzma with questions about his new high-profile teammate, LeBron James, and how the revamped Lakers will fare this season, during Kuzma's visit as part of the "My Y Story" content series. Kuzma, meanwhile, wants to know how the next generation in Flint is coming along and how he can help these kids get wherever they dream of reaching from a deteriorating city.

"It pretty much is a third-world country," Kuzma said of his hometown in a recent interview with ESPN. "A lot of crime, a lot of violence. You look at the city, it's beat down, houses are boarded up and we don't have [clean] water still. It's been that way ever since 2014, and that is going on four, five years. It is definitely disheartening that we continue to let a city in America do this."

NOT FAR FROM the Flint YMCA, the roar of supercharged engines of classic, custom and collector American cars can be heard as they cruise down Saginaw Street.

Residents line up along the street in lawn chairs to catch a glimpse of the classic cars that are trickling in for the upcoming "Back to the Bricks" rolling cruise, a tradition that annually draws more than 500,000 car show enthusiasts.

It's a reminder of Flint's glory days, when the local automobile industry was thriving and GM and Buick had busy plants in the city. It's also a brief distraction for locals to take their minds off of wondering whether their tap water is truly safe to drink.

At its peak in the 1960s, Flint was home to nearly 200,000 residents. GM once employed 85,000 people in Flint. But in 2017, Flint's population stood at barely more than 96,000, with the median household income averaging $25,650 and 41.9 percent of the city living in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau report.

In the past four decades, Flint has endured the departure of much of its lifeline -- the automobile industry -- from its city, the ensuing economic hardship, a crime rate that had Flint ranked in last year's top-10 most violent cities, according to FBI data, and a contaminated water crisis that became a state of emergency and could impact generations for years to come.

"Well, I'll tell you, it's hell," said John Wade, who has lived in Flint for 61 years and worked for GM. "It's hell for us. ... Everything."

The city's economy and population steadily shrank after GM downsized in the 1980s. The state of Michigan took over the city's declining finances in 2011, and the city announced it would be switching to the Flint River as its water source.

Not long after the switch in 2014, lifelong residents such as Dorothy Rogers began noticing the color of the water noticeably changing. When she filled her bathtub with water, an inch and a half of dirt formed at the bottom of the tub. It wasn't long before she developed "blotches all over."

The Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia Tech University did tests in 2015 that indicated dangerous levels of lead discovered in residents' homes.

Rogers said she began using three to four bottles of water to rinse the contaminated water off her after showers and used bottled water for cooking and drinking. She eventually joined a gym where there was clean water just to utilize the showers. But her husband's health worsened and her miniature pinscher's hair began falling out.

"My husband already had chronic health issues, and it just got worse," Rogers said. "We can't prove that [the contaminated water] is what it was because he did pass away. He passed with pneumonia that caused the heart to stop. He was 53."

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, deaths due to pneumonia and the flu in Flint increased from 23 in 2012-13 to 40 in 2014-15. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services reported an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease -- a severe form of pneumonia -- resulted in 87 cases and 12 deaths between 2014 and 2015. The World Health Organization reports that lead consumption can impact vital organs, including the heart and kidney, and can be especially harmful to children and pregnant women, leading to learning disabilities.

Flint declared a state of emergency in December 2015. As the problem worsened, residents fled, leaving some parts of Kuzma's hometown looking like a deserted disaster zone. Around the corner from the Flint YMCA, all that remains of one house is the cement foundation, half of a brick chimney and the steps leading to where the front door used to be.

Rogers said the city ripped her yard up and fixed the pipes under her house, but was told she is responsible for the interior pipes. Like others in Flint, Rogers takes her water to get regularly tested, but she doesn't know whether she can trust the results. When she uses a faucet she hasn't turned on in a while, she still has to leave it running for a bit to let the water turn to its normal color, all while running up her water bill.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder ended the free bottled water program in Flint in April after stating that the water quality was "well within standards." But many residents still don't know whether the water is safe.

"It is just kind of sad for me, how America has let a city of its own deplete and kind of die," Kuzma said. "We help third-world countries out, but we have a city that doesn't have [clean] water. It doesn't make sense. That is definitely one of the frustrating things. But that is why I am not a politician."

Kuzma, 23, may not be running for office, but he hopes to follow in the footsteps of his new All-Star running mate on the court. Kuzma wants to help Flint the way James -- who uses his platform to take a stand and speak out on social and political issues -- has repeatedly given back to Akron. James recently helped build a school in his hometown.

Kuzma dreams of one day having this kind of impact and leaving his imprint on his own Midwestern inner-city hometown in need of help and inspiration.

"I am trying to do a lot," Kuzma said. "Not so much now because I haven't really made enough money [yet] to really make some things happen. ... My thing is to keep spreading awareness.

"During election time, [the water crisis] was such a big deal. And once that kind of went away, Flint went away. I want to try to keep it alive and really keep pushing it forward until I can do bigger and better things here."

In addition to spending time with kids at the Flint Y, Kuzma held his first basketball camp in town for 300 kids, who also got free backpacks filled with supplies that included bottled water.

Rogers and Wade said some local churches still distribute cases of water but that it is hard to know when and where that happens. And when free bottled water is distributed, both said that citizens wait in line for hours to get clean water.

As Rogers, 53, stands outside the Vazquez food truck with friends to watch the classic cars cruise down Saginaw Street, she wonders aloud why she hasn't left Flint like so many others have.

"We are trying to survive," Rogers said. "I have been here all my life. Do I want to pack up and leave? This is all I know. It is just hard."

KUZMA BECAME THE latest pro to make it out of Flint, surprising some by becoming a first-round pick by the Lakers out of Utah and eventually making the All-Rookie team last season. But before he came along, the city's claim to fame in the world of basketball was "The Flintstones." Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and Charlie Bell -- all Flint natives -- helped lead Michigan State to a national championship in 2000 behind their toughness and lunch-pail work mentality.

Those three proudly wore Flint's grit on their jerseys. But Bell, who played seven seasons in the NBA, hardly recognizes his hometown anymore.

"I have been to places like Africa with Basketball Without Borders and you go and see locals walking miles to get clean water," said Bell, who is now an assistant coach for the NBA G League's Iowa Wolves. "And it is just basically the same thing going on in Flint -- you just have to go to get bottled water instead of [from] a well miles away.

"It is like Flint is fizzling away compared to how it was when I was in high school [in the '90s]. With this water thing, everybody is moving out of Flint, jobs are going away. Kids are dropping out of school."

Those that remain in school don't just worry about homework and getting good grades. They also fret about what they will drink at school.

Moses Bingham, the director of the Safe Places program that Kuzma visited at the Flint YMCA, was taking his 8-year-old daughter, Genesis, to school recently when she began panicking because she forgot to pack her water bottle.

"She almost had a nervous breakdown," said Bingham, who grew up in Flint. "I want my kids to be kids. I don't want them to be worried about what they have to drink at school like they are going to run out of water, like we don't have it. Kids from Flint are no different from any other kids in the world. They deserve the right to have clean water, the right to get a good education, just the basics of what we think of America and the American dream."

"[But] we are known for being resilient," Bingham added of Flint. "Some of the things that we have faced, America is facing now. We went through the automotive crisis, we faced that 10, 20 years before everyone else and we took that blow and we showed America we can make it. So we take this water blow and we can make it."

Kuzma plans to continue spreading awareness about his hometown's plight, much like Miss Michigan Emily Sioma did at this year's Miss America 2019 pageant. In a moment that went viral earlier this week, Sioma introduced herself on the Miss America stage by saying, "From the state with 84 percent of the U.S. fresh water but none for its residents to drink."

With 1.9 million followers on Instagram and another 460,000 on Twitter reading his tweets, Kuzma's reach will continue to expand as his game and the Lakers grow alongside James.

"Sometimes the mayor or we [The Flintstones] are saying something, it really does not resonate with people," Bell said. "But when you got somebody like Kyle who plays for one of the most famous franchises ever and with one of the best athletes of all time, people are going to listen. He has more reach than just about anybody I know [from Flint] right now."

As Kuzma conducts a Q&A with the kids at the YMCA, one asks something that everyone in the room wants to know.

"Have you talked to LeBron yet?" a kid asked.

Kuzma said he has, to the delight of the kids. Perhaps one day, Kuzma will talk to James about a deeper subject, like how to help Flint the way James has with Akron.

"LeBron is a role model in that sense," Kuzma said. "Because for him to be as good as he is and how high up he is on the totem pole, to still care about Akron, Ohio, that is tremendous and speaks volumes."

"He is from a small city and I am from a small city. So I want to [have] that type of impact on my community."

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