A full-court press against intolerance

Basketball: A Baltimore native and two D.C. brothers use the sport to help world's children bridge differences.

February 08, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

When an old college friend invited Thibault Manekin to teach basketball to teenagers in Durban, South Africa, Manekin thought of The Air Up There, a comedy about a naive American's search for a hoops star in remote Africa.

But Manekin quickly learned that his friend's program had a serious goal - to use basketball to teach children -black, white and Indian - to see beyond their differences amid the fragile race relations in post-apartheid South Africa.

Four years later, the program, called Playing for Peace, has expanded from South Africa to Northern Ireland, bridging barriers in communities historically separated by strife. Organizers hope to launch a version of it in Cyprus, where tension between Greek and Turkish Cypriots has sometimes erupted into violence. Ultimately, they hope to bring Playing to Peace to Palestinian and Israeli youth.

Tolerance. Respect. And layups.

"We are empowering people to change the ways their worlds have operated," said Manekin. "They are reversing history."

Manekin, 26, a Baltimore native, teamed up with classmate Sean Tuohey, 29, and Tuohey's brother Brendan, who are from Washington. Since then, the idealistic young men have watched their nonprofit organization grow.

In South Africa, coaches have taught basketball to more than 10,000 middle-school children. The youths come from Durban's townships, rural areas and suburbs, where they have watched the AIDS epidemic strangle their communities. Playing for Peace meshes dribbling drills with exercises to help the youths develop emotional bonds as its organizers serve as mentors.

In 2002, the program expanded to Northern Ireland, integrating Catholic and Protestant children's basketball clubs throughout Belfast.

Manekin and Sean Tuohey said Playing for Peace is successful enough to expand everywhere cultural, racial or religious tensions exist.

Sustaining itself

And they have watched the program sustain itself, while instructing former players to be coaches and leaders in their communities.

Manekin saw the power of the concept at Playing for Peace's first tournament, which brought students from a white suburb to play a school in a Durban township. It took months to persuade the suburban parents and teachers to let their students play in the township. The parents were concerned that crime in the townships made them too dangerous for their children.

Safety aside, Manekin noticed a subtle racial undertone. When he told white South Africans of his desire to bring white children to the townships, they alluded to race.

They would say: "I can't believe you would mix with them."

As the paved road turned to dirt, the white students stared nervously from the bus at the shantytown, Manekin said.

But when they stepped off the bus, the black township students welcomed them with a song. After being divided into mixed teams, the only focus was basketball.

"We wanted to show them a part of their own country that they had never known," he said. "After that, schools just started calling us. They wanted it not for the basketball but for the exposure."

Basketball has enlivened communities that have been ravaged by HIV/AIDS.

At the request of township residents, Playing for Peace designed a mentoring program in which staff talk to kids about the dangers of AIDS, substance abuse and peer pressure.

"I think every kid in our program is affected by AIDS; it is everywhere," said Mthoko Madondo, a South African-born coach, who is working in the Playing for Peace program in Belfast.

"We are showing them the way, and hopefully they will choose to live and hopefully they can impact others," Madondo added.

The idea for Playing for Peace was born in Northern Ireland. Sean Tuohey, who played basketball for the Catholic University of America, had moved to Belfast to try out for pro teams in Ireland.

Tuohey began teaching basketball to preteens, Catholic and Protestant, in his spare time. The kids seemed to live not only separate lives, but played distinct sports - Catholic children loved hurling, while the Protestant children played rugby.

Basketball was neutral. But more important, the kids saw the sport as American - in other words, cool. Tuohey seized that enthusiasm as a way to bring together vastly different worlds.

And it worked.

"That was the first time I saw that basketball was bigger than any divide," he said.

Soon after, an Irish friend who had returned from a visit to South Africa suggested he try organizing games in South Africa's coastal city of Durban, where despite the end of apartheid, racial tensions remained. Tuohey agreed and returned to Washington, prodding friends and family members to donate to his vision.

By December 2000, he was on a plane to Durban with $7,000.

"All I had was the idea that I was going to make basketball work," he said. "And soon enough, people in the city found out there was an American teaching basketball and they latched onto me."

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