Former Olympian and NBA star Bill Hanzlik teaches children life skills through sports
As a young man growing up in a family of five, Bill Hanzlik saw his skill on the basketball court largely as a ticket to college. Having a 6-foot-7-inch frame didn’t hurt either.
After landing a scholarship at the University of Notre Dame, the Denver legate expected to graduate and get a job in mechanical engineering.
“But lo and behold,” he said, “I made the 1980 olympic team and was drafted in the first round by Seattle.”
Path to success
A career in the National Basketball Association (NBA) followed, and with it came the beginnings of the Gold Crown Foundation — a nonprofit organization that annually reaches 18,000 youths in elementary school through high school.
Hanzlik was playing for the Denver Nuggets when his business partner, Ray Baker, asked him to help put on some girls’ basketball camps. “OK, I’m game on,” Hanzlik responded, and together the two men founded Gold Crown.
Nearly 30 years later, the foundation teaches young people life skills through basketball, volleyball, golf, lacrosse and educational enrichment programs — including daytime art and technology classes and an after-school Intel Computer Clubhouse.
Gold Crown also provides about $100,000 in scholarships each year and operates a sports complex with a field house and ballpark in Lakewood, Colo., and a junior golf learning center in Broomfield, Colo.
“It’s not about creating NBA or even college players,” said Hanzlik, whose NBA career included coaching assignments with the Charlotte Hornets, Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets. “We really stress teamwork, character, commitment, responsibility, respect — the kinds of things kids can carry into their lives. We’re big believers that you can learn through sports in a good way.”
Legates Randy and Kaye Hammond have seen Gold Crown at work through their 11-year-old daughter Lauren’s participation in the foundation’s sports camps. “Lauren always takes away from [the camps] the team-building exercises,” Kaye said. “Bill makes it about your team and your group.”
Randy agreed. “Kids come to these camps with an emphasis on self. Bill takes it off self and places it on the team. It’s really an incredible testament to Bill’s love of children and the core values associated with Gold Crown.”
Mark Strawbridge, director of the Catholic Schools Athletic League in Denver and principal of Good Shepherd Catholic School, said Hanzlik sees sports as a thoroughfare to a job. “Not every kid is going to go to the NBA, but he wants every kid to be able to succeed.”
Filling the void
Hanzlik said his involvement in the foundation is rooted in his Catholic faith and in what he learned at Notre Dame — to give back and help other people.
“I’m a doer,” he explained. “I’m an action guy, so I try to live my faith through actions. I don’t know how to put it, but it excites me to help others that need help.”
It is in that spirit that Gold Crown and Hanzlik have sought to help Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Denver — particularly those in the inner city, Strawbridge said.
Not only has Gold Crown offered clinics and other opportunities for Catholic school coaches and athletes, but Hanzlik has worked with the Catholic Schools Athletic League to organize a Catholic Families Night with the NBA’s Denver Nuggets to benefit inner-city Catholic school athletic programs.
“Bill is very involved with Catholic schools and Catholic education, as is his wife,” Strawbridge said. “They preach it, they live it, and they absolutely love the idea of what Catholic education can do for all kids. They will do anything they can to help families who want it, but can’t afford it.”
Hanzlik’s wife, Maribeth, is on the board of directors of the Seeds of Hope Charitable Trust, which seeks to make Catholic education available to economically disadvantaged students in Denver’s inner city. Hanzlik, who serves on the Seeds of Hope general board, said his wife’s passion is Catholic education.
Gold Crown programs, however, are open to students from all schools — including, public, private, charter and home. More than 5,000 of them, for example, participate in the foundation’s competitive basketball league for youths in grades 5-8, which was started at a time when middle school sports were being cut from school budgets. The league has since grown into the largest youth basketball league in the state.
“What we try to do is fill voids,” Hanzlik explained.
Gold Crown has also reached out to the Native American community by organizing a spring basketball tournament for players from 13 states, 26 tribes and 24 reservations. “Basketball is the driver, but we talk about how to better yourself through education,” Hanzlik said.
At one of these events two years ago, a young player from the Arapaho tribe and Wind River Reservation in Wyoming captured Hanzlik’s attention.
“I knew he had some talent and I asked him, ‘Are you interested in doing a little more with your basketball?’” When he responded that he was, Hanzlik told him to email him after the tournament, promising to help him if he could.
Hanzlik arranged for the boy to move to Denver to play on a team there, leading to a scholarship offer from Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire.
“This is going to change his life,” Hanzlik said. “He wants to get off the reservation, but he also wants to make a difference.”
Gold Crown’s successes are not just in its sports programs, however. Hanzlik told of an autistic boy who went to one of the foundation’s after-school enrichment programs after having tried four different high schools.
“When he first started, he couldn’t communicate face-to-face,” Hanzlik said. The program art director would sit by his side and “talk” to him via text message. Eventually, the boy started going to the foundation’s Intel Computer Clubhouse and since has become an expert in cartoon caricatures.
Having started Gold Crown while he was still involved in professional basketball, Hanzlik said he never envisioned going full-time with the foundation. He is now its CEO, although he retains his ties to the Nuggets by serving as a TV analyst.
Before signing with Seattle in 1980, Hanzlik recalled, he had a few job offers in his field of mechanical engineering and still retains the letter from a company that offered him a salary of $19,200 — a sum he considered “really good” at the time.
“I guess the good Lord put me on this path to go a different route,” Hanzlik said with a grin.
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.