Seeing the World from the Heart of Downtown

Here’s a sports story that’s not really a sports story. (Oh-oh, I hear some of you saying, I bet this is a sports story. Hang in there, friends. It won’t hurt.) That’s why it stays here, rather than in my own little on-line jock ghetto on your right.

It starts in high school and, yes, it starts with five kids playing for their school team. It was Toronto, possibly the most multicultural city on earth and certainly the basketball capital of Canada. One of its best teams that year featured a couple of guys from a Jamaican background, and one each from Jewish, Italian and Swazi families. Who knows how these things happen, but apparently they had more to talk about than flashy moves and hot girls as they approached graduation.

That summer of 2001, this particularly Fab Five put on the first of their downtown Concrete Hoops basketball camps, attracting many urban kids — often poor and not much younger than they were themselves — for a week of basketball and much more: a glimpse of their place in the world beyond the court. As the camps developed, they began to include music and dance, and to address racism, gender issues, community leadership and youth engagement.

Several of the founders went on to fine educations and athletic careers. The one I’m most familiar with is the McMaster Marauders star Ben Katz, who just finished his remarkable hoops career playing for his Dad while beginning graduate studies at the University of Toronto. He’s the director of the ongoing Concrete Hoops camps, but I’ve found that there’s more to this story than giving city kids a shot, as fine as that is.

Ben’s buddy Jama Mahlalela played his varsity ball at the University of British Columbia, but his family roots were in Swaziland. And in a few weeks, for the third straight year, Concrete Hoops will take its show on a very long and enlightening road to one of the most poor and deeply afflicted countries in AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. “Swaziland is my home and I love the opportunity to work with the young leaders in the country. What we are doing has a huge impact in the community, and in basketball development in a country that really loves the sport,” comments Mr. Mahlalela. The Toronto crew teaches basketball, social commitment and the value of education — in a setting that makes even the real problems of Canadian urban poverty suddenly seem more manageable by comparison. They’ll spend three weeks there. They believe they’re making a difference that lasts longer than that. It is what every educator, every coach, every agent of social justice and change must believe. And they are seeing results, not least in the effect it has had on their own lives and perspectives.

It has been the annual March of excitement in North American basketball, with high school championships, the national tournament for Canadian university teams, and last night’s Final in the American NCAA men’s basketball. (The women play tonight.) I still love it, but I find it harder and harder to stomach the absurd and ever-growing levels of privilege and arrogance displayed by young men, who posture and bray and beat their chests in front of TV millions. It’s not all their fault. They’ve been encouraged to believe that what they do in winning basketball games is “making history” and “shocking the world”. (What do they do for an encore?)

But give me quieter kinds of historical building that leaves more behind than a banner and some game film. Show me young men who look to the subtle betterment of their own small parts of the world. So the most satisfying basketball news that has come my way recently is about the guys who built Concrete Hoops. I briefly hoped that I might be able to join in their fundraising event in Toronto this Saturday night, April 7, because this confluence of sport and world citizenship turns my emotional crank like few things can. However, the best I can do is to let you know how you might support this small package of good work done in the world. The fundraiser, featuring live music and video footage of previous trips to Swaziland, takes place Saturday night at Revival, on 783 College Street in Toronto. You can find out more by contacting Ben and the gang at . Their website can be found here, and has other information about the event.

There’s more to life than sports, I’ve long told young athletes, but there’s more to SPORTS than sports, too. I love it when sports leads to a kind of social good that goes beyond a little adrenaline here, some team spirit there (and media overkill everywhere…). Maybe you’ll want to join me in supporting the locally and globally good work of the Concrete Hoopsters.

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