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T.J. Lewis: Charity comes all the way back

Written by Ernest Hooper, St. Petersburg Times

When T.J. Lewis stands before NationsBank employees in shirt and tie soliciting United Way donations, he looks little like "the kid" who used to play point guard at Gaither High.

Yet thanks indirectly to some United Way seed money, Lewis has grown in many ways since he completed his senior year at Gaither in 1993. You could argue the charitable organization never has made a smarter investment.

Lewis' full-circle story began when United Way gave Tyrone Keys the seed money to begin All Sports Community Service, a scholarship service for high school students that also promotes community involvement.

One of the first players Keys helped was Lewis, who averaged 17.8 points and became Gaither's second all-time leading scorer. Keys sent tapes of the ball-handler to Queens College and Lewis landed a scholarship with the Division II school in Charlotte, N.C.

"Some of your smaller schools don't have a recruiting budget," Keys explained. "They tend to look in the paper and see a guy averaging 18 points and they say, `We can get the same type of guy locally without paying out-of-state fees.' What they don't know is the character and leadership the guy is able to bring. Those are some of the things I try to bring out."

After two seasons as a reserve, Lewis broke into the starting lineup last season. One of five starters in double figures, Lewis averaged 11 points and four assists for Queens, which went 25-6 and made the Division II Sweet 16. The team captain, Lewis was given the Royal Award for academic and athletic leadership.

Lewis has not been just about basketball. While at Queens, he got involved with the INROADS Tampa Bay internship program, which has led to consecutive summer jobs with NationsBank in Tampa. This summer Lewis has given back to the United Way as the coordinator for the bank's internal United Way campaign.

Lewis, known as Thomas (not T.J.) around the bank, has set up 50 different presentations soliciting NationsBank associates, and also trained at the United Way for a week. He expects his efforts to help raise $200,000 for the umbrella organization.

Lewis, who recently won a community service award and scholarship from the United Way, is quick to point out that the opportunities that have blossomed for him began with Keys.

"It was a chain effect that happened with me," Lewis said. "I had never heard of Queens before in my life, he made that opportunity come up for me. What he did was open the door for other things to happen also. Being involved with an organization like United Way, that's something that Tyrone has always preached."

In an effort to keep his non-profit organization going, Keys likes to hold up Lewis as an example of what can happen when you help an athlete move on to college. Not only do they get a chance to advance their athletic careers, but they can become productive citizens who may return to bolster life in Tampa.

Lewis, a corporate communications major who has met nearly every department head at NationsBank, stands a good chance of working at the bank after graduating.

"These are the kind of talents we need and I think these are the kind of things we need to get out to the community," said Joe Voskerichian, NationsBank senior vice president for community relations. "We need to tell the people that given the opportunity and given the chance, we've got some real good talent out there we need to develop.

"That's what we're hopefully doing with Thomas."

Voskerichian, who was a high school and collegiate official at basketball and baseball games for 25 years, has bonded with Lewis because of his sports interest. Through the bond, Lewis has had a chance to meet several community leaders, including Bucs coach Tony Dungy.

Keys constantly is driving home themes of community investment with potential sponsors and the kids he helps. Keys' proteges eventually pass on the message.

Lewis has given motivational speeches to such groups as Upward Bound. He knows beneath the cavalier exterior of teens are concerns about what life has in store, and he stresses the importance of focusing on goals to secure a good future. Keys said the kids Lewis spoke to began calling mere hours after the speech.

With determination, those students may follow the full-circle path that has helped Lewis.

"It's amazing," Keys said. "If you love what you do, it can take you places you thought you would never go. You just don't quit."