Former Maryland Terrapin guard Greivis Vasquez, who is now a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, is in his native Venezuela this week as part of a U.S. State Department "sports diplomacy" program that hopes to use athletes to improve international relations, especially between countries with strained relationships.
Vasquez, a Venezuelan citizen, is teaming with former NBA player Darvin Ham and former WNBA Player Kayte Christensen to hold a series of basketball clinics for kids, as well as meet with local sports officials. It's a similar mission to the one Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken went on with the State Department to China several years ago.
"We want to help young kids understand life is more than basketball. It's more than sports," Vasquez told the Associated Press in a telephone interview. "I want kids to understand that with hard work, everything is possible."
Vasquez said he approached the U.S. Embassy in Caracas recently about doing some work for the community. Ann Stock, the State Department's assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs, said that Vasquez's name came up when the State Department contacted the NBA about its program.
"Close to 65 percent of the people in the world are under age 30," Stock said. "We need to figure out ways to engage with those young people, and sports have always been a way to do that. Greivis is a perfect person for this program, because he's so personable and he's a role model to a lot of kids. He's going to learn a lot too."
Stock said the State Department likes using basketball to reach out to kids because it's become such an international game. Kids in Venezuela may not always grow up presented with a positive images of the United States, but basketball can still help shape their world view. Over the course of the State Department's SportsUnited program, 42 NBA players and WNBA players have gone to foreign countries to conduct clinics and reach out to kids. This year, there are plans to visit the Dominican Republic, Hati, India, Jordan, the People's Republic of Congo and Uzbekistan.
"If you think about what you learn on the court, you can also take that and apply it to life," Stock said. "Basketball is about teamwork, about leadership, about building confidence in yourself, and about figuring out how tot work together. That's what young people can take away from it, regardless of their background. It allows us to open up a conversation in many, many different ways."
Vasquez declined to comment on whether the trip could help relations between the two nations. The U.S. recently imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company for doing business with Iran.
"I'm an athlete. I don't have any connection with the politics at all," Vasquez said. "It's a good sport to unite people. … The political side I can't control."
Stock said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sees programs like SportsUnited as an important part of diplomacy.
"She likes to talk about "smart power," Stock said. "We like to say there are three legs to a stool: One is diplomacy, one is defense, and the other is development. She looks at diplomacy in the 21st century and understands we've got to engage young people. Greivis can do that, because he grew in Venezuela, and was a No. 1 draft choice. Kids are going to respond to him."
Kathleen Behrens, the NBA's executive vice president of social responsibility and player programs, told the Associated Press that the league sees such partnerships as ways to "grow the game."
"It's also a great experience for players who participate," she said. "They are great ambassadors for our sport."