Hoops Diplomacy

May 09, 2005
May 09, 2005

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May 9, 2005

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Hoops Diplomacy

Two brothers from D.C. run Playing for Peace, using basketball to unite youths in nations torn by prejudice

Even before meeting Sean and Brendan Tuohey, you sense their sibling rivalry. The night before you're supposed to lunch with them, an e-mail from Sean asks if you can get together at, say, 10 a.m. instead of noon. "I am saying this with a bit of selfishness," he admits. It turns out Sean, 29, and his older brother have tickets to an afternoon game in the NCAA basketball tournament.

This is an article from the May 9, 2005 issue

No sooner have you read the message than another pops up. It's from Brendan, and it's an apology: "Please disregard my brother's last e-mail. We are available to meet at whatever time works best for you." In person the Tuoheys fight and bicker like, well, brothers. "I played hoops against Sean twice in college," says Brendan, 30, a onetime guard at Colgate. "I outscored Brendan in both of those games," snaps Sean, a former guard at Lehigh. "Sean outscored me once! I outplayed him twice."

For all their playful squabbling, the Tuoheys agree on the unifying potential of basketball. They're the founders, along with Sean's college pal Thibault Manekin, 28, of Playing for Peace, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that uses the game to bridge barriers in regions historically riven by conflict. In five years some 25,000 children in South Africa and Northern Ireland have participated in the charity's clinics and tournaments. "Put kids from anywhere on a basketball team, and the competition will bond them," Brendan says. "We focus on 10- to 14-year-olds because they're at an age when racial prejudice and religious intolerance haven't fully taken hold."

With some 125 employees on three continents, the outfit has become a kind of Peace Corps for coaches and former athletes. The staff includes 15 Americans--recent college grads who've committed to tours of at least a year. Besides teaching basketball fundamentals and instilling a sense of teamwork, they construct courts, train coaches and, in South Africa, teach AIDS awareness.

"One thing that makes Playing for Peace work so well is the sometimes volatile relationship that Brendan and Sean share," says Andrew Gordon, an American who works for the organization in South Africa. "Brendan is conservative; Sean acts on impulse. When they're together, the sparks fly."

Playing for Peace grew out of their experiences while playing basketball in Ireland. After graduating from Colgate in 1996, Brendan moved to Dublin and played for Tolka Rovers of the Irish Division I. While moonlighting as a coach at Dublin City University, he got involved with a group trying to bring young Catholics and Protestants together. "The kids don't just live separate lives, they play different sports," he says. The Catholics love sports like hurling; the Protestants prefer rugby and cricket. "Basketball is neutral," says Sean, who in '99 traveled to Northern Ireland where he coached the club Star of the Sea. "It's American, which makes it cool."

In Belfast, Sean met a police chief who suggested that he organize games in South Africa, where despite the end of apartheid, race relations were troubled. Sean returned to Washington and hashed out the idea with Brendan. Helped out by their father, Mark, the chairman of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, they raised $7,000, enough for Sean and Manekin to fly to Durban. That's how Playing for Peace got started, and now its 2005 operating budget is $875,000, thanks to individual donors, private foundations and corporate sponsors.

For the first Durban tournament, students were bused from a white suburb to a school in a black township. When the bus pulled into the schoolyard, the white kids stared out apprehensively. "It was a tense scene," recalls Sean, "until some black students welcomed them with a song." The kids split up into mixed teams, and for the rest of the event their only focus was basketball.

This summer Playing for Peace expands to the Middle East, where the Tuoheys will work with Israeli and Palestinian youth. Or rather Sean will. "I'm sending him away to get him out of my hair," says Brendan, who'll be deskbound in D.C.

So does basketball ever resolve the conflicts between the Tuoheys? "It does when Brendan knows his role," says Sean. Which is? "To get me the ball and let me shoot."

The Power of Play

Three more international organizations that, like Playing for Peace, employ sports for the greater good of youth

The Peres Center for Peace Founded by former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, the center's sports unit operates soccer and basketball schools that have brought together more than 2,000 Palestinian and Israeli children.

Right to Play The Toronto-based humanitarian outfit, run by Norwegian Olympian Johann Olav Koss, fosters well-being through sports and games, focusing on refugee children, kids living in warring communities, former child soldiers and children orphaned by AIDS. Ongoing projects help combat infectious diseases in Thailand and teach HIV awareness in Mozambique and other African countries.

streetfootballworld This Berlin-based network of grassroots soccer projects promotes peace, tolerance, health and environmental protection in such countries as Afghanistan and Colombia.

COLOR PHOTOPLAYING FOR PEACETEAMING UP A trip to Durban, South Africa, by Sean (in red) put black and white kids together on the court.