With almost 100 foreign players dotting NBA rosters and Argentina's gold medal-winning performance in the 2004 Olympics, it's clear that basketball has become a global sport. Young people around the world are bouncing balls, shooting three-pointers and learning the Allen Iverson crossover move.
But while the game has truly exploded in Europe and parts of South America, basketball is just beginning to catch on in Africa. Yes, the continent has produced a handful of NBA players, including Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria and Dikembe Mutombo from the Congo. But for most of Africa, the game is relatively new.
My family and I recently took a trip to South Africa, where we spent a week in Durban – a port city on the Indian Ocean – in conjunction with an organization called Playing For Peace. PFP is a non-profit group that organizes integrated basketball camps, clinics and leagues in South Africa, Northern Ireland and Israel.
The idea is to place kids from conflicting cultures, races and religions into a basketball setting to compete with each other and bridge social divides. The participants are between the ages of 10 and 14 – young enough so that prejudices haven't been formed, but old enough to be physically capable of learning and playing basketball.
Playing For Peace is based in Washington, D.C., and was founded by two brothers, Sean and Brendan Tuohey. Sean played basketball professionally in Ireland and learned firsthand of the divide between Protestants and Catholics. He realized that basketball could be a perfect vehicle to provide interaction and communication between children who are otherwise segregated and historically at odds. So he enlisted his brother's help and formed PFP.
The original chapter was opened in Durban in 2001, followed by one in Belfast. This summer, Sean Tuohey moved to Israel to begin operations involving Palestinian and Israeli kids. He left for the Middle East only after helping to build a highly successful operation in Durban that has included more than 20,000 young South African children.
South Africa is a racially diverse country, yet it is just 11 years removed from apartheid and thus is extremely segregated. Racial interaction is critical to the future of the country, and in effect, PFP is using basketball to provide that interaction. Traditionally in South Africa, black kids have played soccer, while white children compete in rugby and cricket. Basketball is a neutral sport the kids can learn together.
My family witnessed this firsthand. We were able to participate in camps and clinics all over the city, including the impoverished townships of Umlazi and Lemontville. Seeing these shantytowns for the first time is shocking – overflowing classrooms at rundown schools, makeshift scrap-metal sheds and huts for housing, barely any room to breathe as the roads and neighborhoods are jammed with people.
Worst of all, AIDS runs rampant in South Africa, especially throughout the townships. The principal of one school in Umlazi estimated that 35 percent of her students were orphaned because of AIDS, and that 20 percent were HIV positive themselves. With unemployment running high and a very poor educational system, the future appears grim for these children.
Playing For Peace is giving these kids hope. The organization has built 45 basketball courts at various schools. It provides balls, uniforms and instruction, and offers AIDS education and life skills programs as well. PFP runs tournaments, many of which include school teams from wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods that travel to townships for the first time in the players' lives to compete with and against black kids. It is an opportunity for South Africans from very different backgrounds to communicate and feel more comfortable around each other.
The three American men at the heart of the Durban operation – Brian Shea, Zach Leverenz and Geoff Schwarten, hire and train a staff of 90 local South African young men and women to coach the youngsters. Each coach is in charge of a school team in his or her own neighborhood. They run practices during the week, with the highlight being Friday – game day. Like kids in America, the South African youngsters take great pride in their schools, their teams and competition. The games are lively and are filled with energy, passion and local Zulu culture.
For me, it was a reminder of how important basketball can be. The game not only keeps the kids active and involved, but it teaches them teamwork, tolerance and discipline. The South African coaches – most of who are in their early 20s – are mentors for the kids and are the heart and soul of PFP. They will be excellent role models for years to come for the many young players taking part in the program.
And with AIDS taking such an enormous toll on the population of South Africa, role models are becoming scarce for many children. Through basketball, PFP is helping to mold future community leaders who can improve race relations and education for the future of South Africa.
The young Americans running the operation are basketball's answer to the Peace Corps – young and idealistic with a desire to help people. And while PFP's goal is to encourage racial interaction among the kids, it is also providing its own sort of interaction between Americans and South Africans.
PFP relies on individual and corporate funding and private grants. The South African government has invested in the organization, as well as The Laureus Sports Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the NBA, including several of its teams – the San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Phoenix Suns. For more information on PFP, please refer to the group's website, Playingforpeace.org.