Basketball is more than a game.
That was the focus of the National Basketball Players Association Foundation’s weeklong journey through South Africa in July. Three student-athletes joined NBA stars like Chris Paul and the Gasol brothers for a community service trip to positively change the lives of kids on and off the court. In a three-part series for SIKIDS.com, the lucky student-athletes share their experiences as part of the trip. They detail how they used the game they love to connect with the children of South Africa, how touring the country inspired them, and why bringing the NBA to Africa is a game-changing move.
The second entry comes 15-year-old Sophie Bernstein of St. Louis, Missouri. The forward (and varsity swimmer) who contributes her time to VolunTEENnation, a resource tool that helps students can find service opportunities in their communities, recaps her participation in two court dedication ceremonies during the trip. Each event showed her just how big of an impact basketball can make across the world.
A hoop and a basketball can transcend borders and cultures. This summer, I had an experience that taught me that first hand. I had the incredible opportunity to travel across the globe to South Africa with NBA players and coaches to promote community service and basketball. The trip showed me the power of a basketball — it can be used to promote education, teamwork, and sportsmanship.
Along with current and former pro basketball players, coaches, the other student-athletes selected for the trip — Zaniya Lewis and Jason Murphy —I visited the Boys and Girls Club of South Africa at Protea Glen on July 30. This organization provides after-school education and recreational programs for children growing up in challenging environments surrounded by poverty.
The NBA players and coaches spoke directly to the children and highlighted the importance and value of obtaining an education. The NBPA and the NBA donated a brand new basketball court and an extensive library filled with books to the facility. The court and library will ensure children have the opportunity to exercise, read, do their homework, hang out, and develop life-long friendships in a safe and caring environment.
As the shiny ribbon to the basketball court was cut for the Boys and Girls Club celebration, the children and players rushed onto the court. It was truly magical. The players and all the kids were running around smiling and laughing. Every player was out on the court, either helping with drills or playing one-on-one a child. Retired WNBA star Ruth Riley jumped in on the drills and did some high knees with the kids. The Gasol brothers — Pau and Marc — and retired NBA player Muggsy Bogues taught kids how to dribble. Guards Bradley Beal, of the Washington Wizards, and Trey Burke, of the Utah Jazz, worked with kids on their layups. Orlando Magic forward/center Nikola Vucevic was the ultimate cheerleader, giving high fives all around, while Miami Heat forward Luol Deng helped kids with their shot. Every time someone made a layup, there was a roar of support. The children would all raise their hands up in victory and smile. The NBA coaches also offered support by applauding the kids and worked with kids on improving their passing.
The following day we visited the SOS Children’s Village in Ennerdale, South Africa. The SOS Children’s Village is a nonprofit organization that provides stable, loving family group homes for orphaned children. It’s also the place where we participated in another basketball court dedication.
When we stepped out of the van the children immediately surrounded us with their warm smiles, dancing, singing, and playing loud music. Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried jumped in and started to dance with the kids.
I was deeply moved when a young boy and his sister, with their eyes filled with excitement and wonder, came up to me. The boy held out his hand and we walked to the court together, hand-in-hand. Before I noticed a young girl took my other hand, then another took the girls hand. We were a chain. At each house a child would shout out, “Look over there, I live there, I live there!” They were proud to show me their community and excited for me to see their new basketball court and library. They ran onto the basketball court asking me to show them how to dribble the ball. With a quick basketball lesson my new friends were dribbling like the pros.
At the court, Paul, Pau Gasol, and Deng spoke to the kids about the importance of basketball, education, and exercise. After speaking with Paul, I understood his passion of using his sport to make the world a better place. He encouraged all of us to give our best on and off the court, in the classroom, and in our communities.
When I asked what sports the children played, the answer was always the same, “basketball and soccer!” After hearing that the kids loved soccer, some of the NBA players started a game. I have to say, for a sport they didn’t play professionally they were really good!
The NBA players came to Africa not just play a basketball game, they came to interact, teach, to inspire the kids to pursue an education, and give back. The players were down to earth and kind. The NBPA and NBA staff and players were energized, motivated, and dedicated to help bring basketball, life skills, and hope to the people of South Africa.
As I look back at the moment I was standing on the basketball courts in South Africa, more than 8,700 miles away from my home in St. Louis, I remember feeling like I was home, playing basketball in my own backyard. I did not speak the same language as most of these kids, but we all spoke the universal language of basketball.
Photos: National Basketball Players Association