The most important fans

The average attendance is under 500. Sometimes the Sun Dome echoes like a hardwood canyon.

It’s strange, but in some games, the USF women’s basketball team has less people in the stands than a theater showing the latest Wesley Snipes movie.

Though for players Sharon Cambridge and Alana Tanksley, those seats hold more important people: little kids.

A while ago, Cambridge and Tanksley founded Create-a-Smile Foundation to help underprivileged children. The two players will plan special functions for boys and girls. Recent events include a trip to Busch Gardens on a past Saturday and a possible upcoming pizza party.

“It started as a class project,” Cambridge said. “So we chose Metropolitan Ministries, which is a homeless shelter for families. But the project started off as more of a social thing, where we had a discussion group with the kids just to get to know them. And eventually we planned the party for Busch Gardens. And then we raised money for those events.”

Cambridge and Tanksley finished the class project but continue to help the kids. They brought them to the Jan. 9 win against Louisville.

“We hope to get them out to more games,” Tanksley said. “I think they really like (coming to the games). And I think even seeing women playing basketball is exciting. The boys really enjoy it. They like basketball, so it’s a big deal for them.”

For these two players, who couldn’t get more locally famous if they had a cable commercial between Bay City Plywood and Carsmestics, the kids are starting to look up them; and what better place to look?

The girls are young and athletic, and while they may not have a Cribs special on MTV like LeBron James, they have something the overpaid 19-year-old doesn’t: a college education.

“I think it’s very important because kids are idolizing these figures on television and they don’t really know them,” Tanksley said. “They’re just looking at the glitz and the glamour and say ‘I want to be just like that when I grow up,’ but it’s bigger than that.”

She’s right: It is bigger than that. These kids are too easily influenced to realize that not all athletes have their own book about the “horrors” of the sport they choose to play.

Cambridge and Tanksley aren’t only collegiate players; they used to be these kids in the foundation and those watching from the stands.

“You have to want to be your own person and affect the world in your own way,” Tanksley said.

Cambridge added, “When I was younger, if I saw somebody that was a good role model, then I’d strive to be that person. Eventually though, we’d realize that we’d have to be ourselves too.”

So where have these players been? The Cambridges? The Tanksleys? Those players who realize the most important thing isn’t how “ill” their game is or how “phat” their Escalade looks with some spinning rims?

They are disappearing, but we can only hope that these kids will pick up a few ethical lessons while enjoying the roar of the Kumba.

“I think our foundation, that’s one of our keys,” Cambridge said. “I mean we’re basketball players, but we’re more than basketball players.”

Cambridge and Tanksley are on the right track. They are more than just basketball players.

They are someone special to those little kids.