Published August 2006

Passion for Fitness
Former NBA star heads growing network
of regional fitness centers
Snohomish County Business Journal/JOHN WOLCOTT
Former NBA All-Star and Sonics player James Donaldson, who spent 20 years on professional teams, now operates four fitness and physical therapy centers in the Puget Sound area, including his first one, in Mill Creek, this new center in Mukilteo, and two others in Seattle and Tacoma.

By John Wolcott
SCBJ Editor

Even on professional basketball courts, where other tall players appeared to be similar in height, James Donaldson’s 7-foot-2-inch frame stood out. Now, after a 20-year career on the boards, he still stands out, but this time for his successful physical fitness centers in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, his community involvement and his love of people.

He’s not only a businessman and civic leader, he’s also a people person. Seeing him stride up to greet a new arrival at his Mukilteo fitness and physical therapy center, the first impression of Donaldson isn’t necessarily his height, it’s his friendly, welcoming grin.

Opposing players who faced the high-powered center when he played all-out for the Seattle SuperSonics, San Diego and Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks and the Utah Jazz probably didn’t see many of those grins on the court, but the staff, customers and civic groups he now works with see a lot of smiles.

Turning 49 this month, Donaldson looks back on his highly successful career in basketball and talks excitedly about his present career as a businessman, running a growing network of physical fitness and rehabilitation centers. He earned millions of dollars each season in NBA play; now, his fitness centers bring in revenue that hit around $1.5 million in 2005.

“Very few athletes find something after their career that they’re as passionate about as shooting baskets or running footballs, but I’ve found that with this fitness career,” the 1979 Washington State University sociology and psychology graduate said. “It was my own injury in 1988 and six months of recovery that convinced me I wanted to help other people with those services, as well as staying fit.”

After his knee injury on the court, he made a determined recovery that amazed his doctors, even returning to the NBA for another five years of play. After leaving pro-ball in the states, he played five years with international teams in European competition, extending his professional career to 20 years.

“While I played in Europe and traveled so much, I learned to speak Spanish, Greek and Italian and learned a lot about those cultures and their history. That was a great life experience that helps you get along with folks from any walk of life,” said the England-born basketball star, who now lives in Seattle.

During his six months of rehabilitation therapy, and seeing how it helped return him to good health, he began thinking about helping others with his own fitness clinic — complete with shuttle services.

“When my knee was shattered, I couldn’t drive. But being with the Dallas Mavericks, I rode in a stretch limo daily. Since most people don’t have that luxury, I realized how much transportation means to them during their rehab, including older people who no longer drive and even young people who don’t have their licenses yet,” Donaldson said.

He opened his first clinic in Mill Creek in 1990, a decade before retiring from pro-basketball. Today, that center also is his corporate headquarters for his roster of 50 employees.

In 2001, he opened a fitness center in Tacoma’s Hill Top district, followed by another center in Seattle’s Central Area and then his newest one in Mukilteo last fall.

The fitness centers offer an array of exercise equipment but also massage therapy, fitness classes and personal training. His Mill Creek office is “perhaps the only one in the state” that provides mental health therapy for patients recovering from traumatizing injuries, which reminds him of his own frustrations after his knee injury.

“This industry will continue growing as young people become more active and older people need things like therapy for hip and shoulder replacements. We work a lot with major insurance companies to provide therapy programs and even have a heated aquatic therapy pool with an underwater tread mill for people recovering from knee and back injuries,” he said.

For Donaldson, who works out at 5:30 a.m. regularly, much of his life consists of exercise, nutrition and mingling with people — inspiring them, being inspired by them and always being ready to help.

His time also is spent mentoring youth in Snohomish County’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program, providing a role model for African-American youth in Seattle and Tacoma’s poorer neighborhoods and getting public, private and corporate sponsors to support mentoring programs. Each week, he visits classrooms in Tacoma to read with students.

He also serves on boards of directors with chambers of commerce in Seattle and Tacoma and is involved in reading programs in Mukilteo and south Snohomish County, as well as hiring high school students at his clinics to provide jobs and get them involved.

“A lot of kids don’t get the help and guidance they need. For me, community involvement and helping is a personal mission in life, just being involved in helping others,” said Donaldson, who said his NBA career and other successes were inspired by his high school coach in Sacramento, Calif., and his coach at WSU, George Reveling, “a father figure who took a chance on me and offered me a scholarship.”

For more information, check out James Donaldson’s Web sites at or, or visit his fitness centers in Snohomish County, including The Donaldson Clinic in Mill Creek (425-745-4910) and the new Donaldson Fitness & Physical Therapy center in Mukilteo (425-348-4000).

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© 2006 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, WA