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Starkey: Peace and basketball

| Thursday, July 29, 2010

A basketball miracle repeats itself frequently in the conflict-ridden lands of Belfast, Cyprus and Israel.

By miracle, I mean generations of mistrust and fear dissipating in the time it takes to advance a ball past midcourt.

I mean sports serving its highest purpose, as an instrument of peace.

Hatred melts fast in the hands of children, even if they hail from, say, rival sections of Belfast, where large strides have been made but dozens of 40-foot walls still separate Protestant and Catholic communities.

"For all of Irish history, people have been trying to keep these kids apart," says Trevor Ringland, an Irish rugby hero and tireless peace advocate in his homeland. "In 10 seconds, the barriers can be broken down."

Ringland, 50, grew up in Northern Ireland in a Protestant household, the son of a policeman. His father tried to shield him from "The Troubles," as the Protestant-Catholic dispute came to be known. At age 12, however, Ringland stumbled across inquest photographs from a bombing. He shook at the sight of the charred remains. He was forever changed.

When he speaks of the 10-second rule, Ringland is referring to basketball programs that bring Protestant and Catholic kids together through a non-profit organization called PeacePlayers International. The Pitt basketball team will get a close-up look at the program during a 12-day, six-game exhibition tour that is sure to leave a lasting impression. The Panthers take off today and are scheduled to visit Belfast next weekend.

Steelers president emeritus Dan Rooney, the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland, and his wife, Patricia, helped organize Pitt's trip. So did the Panthers' director of basketball operations, Brian Regan, who has witnessed first-hand the power of PeacePlayers.

"These are kids who could be sitting together at the negotiating table someday," Regan says.

Basketball is a non-sectarian sport in Ireland. It is neutral. The miracle happens almost the instant the PeacePlayer participants -- usually ages 9 to 15 -- are set loose on the court and immerse themselves in a swirl of chatter of errant shots.

Ten seconds later, the whistle blows, and the kid standing next to you might be from the other side of the wall. But you're 11 years old, so why would you care?

"The idea is to throw them together before they realize they're actually together," Ringland says. "They mix naturally. The divisions disappear."

The vision for PeacePlayers came about in a basement in Washington, D.C., in 2001. Colgate graduate Brendan Tuohey and his younger brother, Sean, talked their father into launching a basketball-for-peace program in South Africa. The brothers raised $7,000 and away they went, operating under their parents' mandate: "We are here to serve."

Brendan, executive director of PeacePlayers, was a star basketball player at Gonzaga High School in D.C., and played professionally in Ireland, where a seed was planted. He was living in Belfast in the late 1990s when a group from Gonzaga High -- a group that included ex-Pitt coach Paul Evans, then a volunteer assistant at the school -- came to work a series of clinics for Protestant and Catholic kids.

More than a decade later, the PeacePlayers budget has grown to $2.5 million, much of it donated by the communities served. More than 45,000 children have participated, including Jewish and Arab children in Israel and the West Bank.

The Tuohey brothers enlisted Ringold and others to help implement the program in Belfast. One key in all the countries is to turn management over to locals. That way, it becomes ingrained in the community as a year-round endeavor.

"Sports is such a great way for kids to look at each other as human beings rather than objects," Brendan Tuohey said. "If you can do that, can't you think of a whole people as human beings• And if you can do that, can't you take the lessons back to your community and have a transformative effect?"

A "Today Show" piece on PeacePlayers focused on a Jewish child and an Arab child who'd become friends over basketball.

The interviewer asked the Jewish boy: "Why do you like him?"

"Because he is a good friend," the boy said.

A small group of parents tried to block the Belfast program before giving way to courageous and enlightened adults, who saw to it that their kids made it to the court each day. One father, in particular, touched Ringland when he said, "I don't want a relationship with those people -- too much history -- but I want my children to have one."

They do, thanks to PeacePlayers.

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