Jerusalem24 – US Sports Envoys NBA Coach and WNBA player Edniesha “Coach Eddie” Curry and NBA player Stephen Howard, along with NGO Palestine: Sports for Life co-founder Tamara Awartani, joined us in the studio on Thursday as part of the first US Sports Envoy visit to Palestine in six years.
Around 300 children ages 12 to 16 attended a three-day basketball coach clinic as well as youth workshops in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Envoys also met virtually with basketball coaches from Gaza.
While this is Coach Eddie’s second trip to Palestine, Stephen says “it’s been great” to “experience a bit of the Palestinian experience.”
However, both emphatically agree on the fact that “the kids are the reason we’re here.”
While the US Office of Palestinian Affairs coordinated the visit along with Palestine: Sports for Life, the message brought by Coach Eddie and Stephen was very personal indeed. It was a special message for budding basketball players, coaches, and future leaders – and for the girls among them in particular – that they hoped to deliver “loud and clear.”
All about the kids
“When I get an opportunity to impact kids and help them dream and help think outside the circumstances in which they live, I’m going to take that opportunity because it’s what someone did for me back home,” says Coach Eddie. “They came to my neighborhood and inspired me, helped me to have hope and dream, go on to be a professional athlete and do the things I’m doing now in my life.”
Stephen says the goal is to expand the children’s horizons, and to show them how to believe and to dream. “To see that actively happening before our eyes, that’s all you can ask for as a coach or as a mentor.”
For Stephen, the excitement of mentoring the kids took on an even more special meaning given the location: “Being African-American and coming from a place where we’ve endured being marginalized, to have the opportunity to come and have an effect on other people that have to endure marginalization, and to have that opportunity to bring life and love and expand possibilities through sports – which ultimately is what we’re here for – I literally jumped at the chance.”
For the children themselves, this was also a chance to jump at. Tamara explains they were able to coordinate the attendance of children from across occupied Palestine – a rare event due to obstructions to freedom of movement imposed by Israeli authorities.
“We had youth coming from the north to the south, from Jerusalem to Gaza,” says Tamara, “so this in itself was an opportunity.”
A story to tell the grandkids
While the chance to have kids from all over Palestine meet up doesn’t happen very often, explains Tamara, the chance for the kids to meet world-class basketball players is of the once-in-a-lifetime kind.
“Some of them, their dream was to actually be there, so this was really big,” Tamara says of the children. “Some of them will be telling this story to their grandchildren.”
This is also the first time in six years that US Sports Envoys have visited Palestine – a trend Tamara is hoping will change, with a new era marked by Coach Eddie and Stephen’s visit.
Palestine: Sports for Life hopes this year’s program will create a ripple effect, and engender new and continuing opportunities for Palestinian youth to grow and meet role models.
“Sports is always about the development of the person.”
Tamara believes that listening to inspiring stories from accomplished athletes gives the kids a push to go forward. “This is what we always try to bring in through sports. Through sports you can achieve all of those life skills. Through sports you connect; through sports, you network. And now they have connections in the States that they will always and forever speak of, will always connect to, growing up.”
Stephen sums it up in three words: “Sports is life.”Stephen also has advice for budding Palestinians leaders: “Lead with your enthusiasm and be enthusiastic about your goals – but also be enthusiastic about the people around you, the people that affected you, so that you can help that next generation as well.”
“If you believe in the next generation and you believe in the process, you put everything into it and that’s what we’re here to do.”
“Just walk into a room and be yourself”
While basketball remains a male-dominated field in Palestine, photos taken at the three-day basketball coach clinic seem to offer a glimpse of changing times, with many more girls in attendance than boys.
Coach Eddie, who has faced her own set of challenges and adversity, says she was hoping “to just give the young girls and women the hope that they can walk into any room and just be themselves. Being the trailblazer, being the first of so many things, I wanted to make that message loud and clear for them.”
A trailblazer in her own right (and a basketball player herself) Tamara was part of a basketball community growing up where girls’ presence was less prominent than it is now.
This has all been changing, she says, and is visible at events like the US Sports Envoy basketball coach clinic.
Palestine: Sports for Life specifically targets young girls and women. It aims to provide a safe space to be empowered, educated, and meet like-minded women and girls in and outside their own communities.
“We wanted to echo the message that this is a safe space for everyone: you can send your girls, you can send yourself,” explains Tamara. “This is the chance to showcase yourself and get noticed by your teachers, by your communities – and bring back what you’ve been taught by Coach Eddie and bring it back to your space, your classroom, your community, your school.”
Tamara brings up again the ripple effect she mentioned earlier: “This is what we believe in. Just take one, and let them do their thing in their communities.”
“Do it with all your heart and just go after it”
Stephen was also particularly moved to see as many girl participants as were at the training. “I’m a child of an extremely strong woman and I’m a girl dad as well. That really touched my heart. Everyone should have equity and the equal opportunity to be successful.”
“We had this one lady, she was in sandals,” remembers Stephen. “It didn’t bother her though. She was out there dribbling and shooting and it was just amazing to see.”
And Coach Eddie has a message for all the girls and women – sandals-wearing or not – who attended the workshops, and those who didn’t get the chance:
“Playing in the WNBA and being a professional athlete was a dream of mine since I was 12 years old. So for me to achieve that dream, it took a lot of courage, risk, and a lot of belief. And the one thing I told all the girls – and I say this to all young girls and women – don’t ask for permission to be what you want to be in this world.”
“Do it with all your heart and just go after it.”
Watch the full interview on Vibes.