As the NBA prepares to bring its Basketball Without Borders program to Israel this summer, league officials hope that the first trip to the country can help bring children together during a time of increasing tension.
Basketball Without Borders has visited countries across the globe since 2001, using the sport to promote cultural understanding and active living. The first camp was held in Italy, but brought together Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc, teammates on the former Yugoslavian national team that grew estranged during the political turmoil that ensued as the country fractured.
Now the NBA and FIBA are going to Israel, a nation that has long had a great passion for basketball, during a time of unrest in the Middle East.
''We're looking forward to the chance to bring all communities together for this program,'' said Kathy Behrens, NBA president of social responsibility and player programs. ''This is going to be about bringing the Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze and other communities together.''
The camp will take place from Aug. 13-16 in Netanya. The top teenagers from over 30 countries, including Israel, Spain, Germany and France, will get coaching and tutoring from NBA and FIBA players, coaches and former stars, including former Spurs All-Star David Robinson. The teens will also perform community outreach in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Israel has a strong basketball community, and several professional teams from the country have traveled to the United States to play NBA teams in exhibition games.
''It's a country that loves basketball,'' Behrens said. ''I think they will be a great host. It has an extraordinarily rich history. So I think the people who are going to be at the camp participating will learn a lot and certainly appreciate that aspect of it.''
Behrens said the league has been talking to active players about participating in a program that has visited 25 countries on six continents since its inception.
''It's really become part of what the NBA is about in terms of trying to grow the game on a global scale,'' Behrens said. ''And we think this program, because of everything that it does in terms of bringing people together, bridging cultural divides, language barriers, it really has cemented itself as a key part of our calendar.''
Some 23 players who attended the camp over the years were on opening-night rosters this season, including Marc Gasol, Danilo Gallinari and Omri Casspi.
''It's great to see the NBA and FIBA recognize Israel's basketball development efforts by hosting the camp there for the first time,'' said Casspi, the first Israeli to play in an NBA game. ''I look forward to working with Europe's top male and female players and showing them the beauty and culture of my home country.''
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This story has been corrected to state that Behrens was referring to Druze, not Druids, in the fourth paragraph.