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Originally published September 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 6, 2007 at 2:06 AM

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Wade makes charity his business

The man walking into the Queen Anne coffee shop spends his life in sports. He looks like a bodybuilder or a bodyguard. Head shaved. Torso thick. Arms bulging...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The man walking into the Queen Anne coffee shop spends his life in sports. He looks like a bodybuilder or a bodyguard. Head shaved. Torso thick. Arms bulging.

"Big Matt Wade," former Sonics guard Ray Allen calls him.

There's something about the big man's smile. He works with Deion Branch, Jamal Crawford, Brent Barry and Vladimir Radmanovic, and once worked with Allen and Rashard Lewis, though not in the way one might guess. The smile, that's his calling card.

"I'm here to help," Matt Wade says.

Those four words pretty much sum the big man up. Wade makes his living organizing and directing athletes' charities from his Shoreline home. Athletes come to him with motivation, the idea that somehow, some way, they want to give back. Wade charges them to handle all the details.

"Matt has so many ideas," says Branch, a Seahawks wide receiver. "He's relentless."

People describe Matt Wade like a big, charitable bulldog. "Presence," is Allen's word. "Tenacious," says former Sonic community-relations director Jim Marsh, who hired Wade as an intern with the Sonics in the late 1980s.

Marsh still remembers the time Wade drove a truckload of soda to the Tri-Cities for a basketball camp. Already running late, he missed the turn at Ellensburg, then arrived so nervous that he drove over a curb, spilling the truck's contents. Marsh knew then he had found his eventual successor, a man who wouldn't stop.

Wade took over as director of community relations for the Sonics in 1996. Part of the job involved facilitating hospital visits for players like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. Those visits changed his life, opened his eyes to the power of an athlete's presence.

The Sonics laid off Wade in 2003, a budget casualty, and he left the corporate structure to find his place in the world of sports charities. Wade already had his network, an ever-expanding circle of community contacts. More important, players trusted him.

A few days later, Allen asked Wade to work for his foundation. The big man found he enjoyed working with athletes more than teams.

"There's less structure," Wade says. "It's more like, 'What do you want to do? All right, let's do it.' What I'm hoping to do is cut out a niche."

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Wade learned nonprofit work by immersing himself in it. He found his role and all the difficulties that go with it.

Like steering young millionaires into a way of giving back that isn't natural to them. Or dealing with friends, family, agents and business people charged with building athletes' wealth. Or finding new clients when players like Allen and Lewis chose not to renew contracts. In both cases, their charitable activity declined after they stopped working with Wade.

Since Wade deals mostly with public charities, his athletes raise money in their names.

As such, Wade's duties are all over the charitable map. The usual has included helping Allen start an algebra-tutoring program at Madrona Middle School in Seattle. Or guiding Crawford's efforts to replace the gym floor at Rainier Beach High School. The unusual has included loading portable hoops into a U-Haul to drive to Portland recently for a basketball camp.

"Matt is to be commended for sticking with what most people would have walked away from," says Daniel Asher, a mentor who runs the Foundation Management Group LLC and has worked locally in nonprofits for more than 25 years. "Let's face it, he doesn't have the easiest job in the world.

"He really has found what could and should be a niche. My biggest concern for him is trying to work charitable giving in an environment that's not inherently charitable."

The big man remains up for the challenge. Some days make all the hassle worth it. Like the time Wade's friend installed Branch's home-entertainment system, and they started talking about foundation work. Next thing Wade knew, his phone was ringing and Branch was on the line, and they hatched a plan to make a small difference in the world.

The money doesn't hurt, either. Wade lives a comfortable life off what he makes helping athlete charities, and he travels the country setting up events for Crawford (New York), Barry (San Antonio) and Radmanovic (Los Angeles). Charges vary depending on athlete and event, and Wade says he makes less in a year than most executive directors of charities.

Someday, maybe in 10 or 15 years, Wade sees himself in an office, directing a full staff. He sees a player like Kevin Durant coming into this community, looking for help with charity, and "boom, I've got everything in place."

"Sometimes I get frustrated," Wade says. "Because these guys can do so much. These guys are so powerful. Some of them don't understand the impact they make. I'm into karma. Karma is huge. We're trying to make a difference. Hopefully, some good comes out of that."

And so the big man continues on, vision intact, bulging biceps carving out that niche. That smile serving all the while as his calling card.

"I'm here to help," Matt Wade says again.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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