Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sports Movements: Full Court Peace

Sport: an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature. This is the typical form in which society defines sport - usually pointing at the importance of winning the game as opposed to the skills and values gained from playing it. Sports should more than just about competing, winning and leaving in triumph. Sports should be instead used as a tool to unite, enlighten and stimulate progress more often. That is exactly what Michael Evans, Dave Cullen and Full Court Peace (FCP) have set out to do.

Layup drills, defensive sets, pick and rolls - how do these simple tasks create a lasting bond between children? The answer is hidden behind the cohesion created by the team-oriented attitude that basketball instills in people. FCP does just that by brining together children of Catholic and Protestant religions in Belfast, Ireland in order to set aside their differences and make them aware of their similarities.

Northen Ireland has been plagued with religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants for centuries now - tearing apart populations of people and dividing a region. The most innocent of the people affected in this are the children, whom do not fully understand the reasons behind the wars. We were able to have a Q&A session with Mike Evans in order to fully understand the situation in Belfast, Northern Ireland and explain how FCP has begun changing lives over there.

Q: What was the deciding moment that led you to create Full Court Peace (FCP)?

I was living in Connecticut with a relatively mundane job. I had recently moved home from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where, only with the help of Dave Cullen and Dave Tierney (two Belfast natives and now key Full Court Peace members), I was able to put together a half-Protestant, half-Catholic teenage boys' basketball team. It was a controversial idea that the three of us had put together successfully, and all of the kids involved had remained friends with each other in the post-season.

The exact moment that led to the creation of FCP as an official entity to continue that work came when Dave Cullen, the Co-Founder of Full Court Peace, called me and demanded that we move forward with the work we had done. "This place is too much in-need for us to just stop with one team," he told me, "we have no choice. Let's do it." He's the inspirational-type, and it worked on me. He was right.

Q: How has FCP changed your understanding of life?

I'm much more interested in politics, but at the same time, I'm more critical of politicians. I mean that in a healthy and cooperative way. That is, after seeing the results of war in Belfast, and after seeing the enduring strength of sectarianism, I'm highly suspicious of the way post-conflict regions are handled by the people put in place to "cure" them, or heal them.

After seeing the incredibly positive after-effects of sport on a small sample of that culture, and seeing a healing process happen in a matter a months, I wonder where the time and money spent on helping Belfast heal from the top has gone. I'm also closer with all my former teammates. High school and college. It meant so much to me to be able to instill in the minds of youth the ideals that the coaches I had instilled in my friends and me.

Q: What is your most vivid FCP memory?

My most vivid memory was eclipsed this past year by a memory held by Colin Powers and TJ Reynolds, our amazing coaches on the ground in Belfast.

We coach basketball at Protestant and Catholic high schools in Belfast for three months, recruiting players and garnering interest in the sport. Then, we take the kids from each school who have shown the most dedication and unite the two groups to form a team. It's an awkward and contentious time, those first unified practices. And we often wonder if the kids are buying into it.

This past year, a group of Protestant players awaited for bus to bring them over to the Catholic school for their team practice. After about 15 minutes, they were told their bus was not coming because a teacher had forgotten to take them. In a show of complete understanding of our work's mission, and in unprecedented fashion, the boys marched into their principal's office and demanded they get a ride to the Catholic school.

The principal took them and they never missed a practice the entire year.

Q: How many children have gone through FCP?

Thirty 16-year-old boys have gone through FCP. The number may seem low, but we're confident that each kid we've worked with has turned his life around - and his attitude toward the other religion. In September, we'll be working with 75 kids, and we'll be starting our first girls' team, which will be coached by Emily Bango, an American coach with a lot of experience. We'll also be starting our Alumni Program, which will comprise 10 graduates and will help foster their friendships forged on the court.

Q: How does basketball help change these children's lives?

The same way it changes American teens' lives, but with a little more intensity. We at Full Court Peace know that basketball, the ultimate team sport, teaches communication, persistence, reliance on others, leadership and healthy living. The game does the work for us.

Our kids come to as troubled youth from sometimes-broken homes, with little knowledge of commitment and hard work and with little tolerance of the "others" from the opposite side of the wall. We make it simple for them: come to practice and you'll be on the team. Work really hard and you'll get better. Get better and you'll lead the team.

It becomes less of a cross-community project (which many youth there roll their eyes at) and more about a team of young kids who see they're all escaping the ills of a society trying to recover. They see that regardless of religion, depression and drug abuse, sectarianism and violence and a lack of having a mentor can weigh heavily on their lifestyles. They celebrate wins, but not because they had more points that the other team; because they came together and achieved something for the one of the first times in their lives.

And finally, they make friends, genuine friends. They don't go home after a season of playing with kids they'd never normally meet and say, "Mom, I once met a Protestant or Catholic." They go home and they log into Facebook and add the other kids as friends. They text each other. They call each other. They stay on the team and they continue being teammates and they build that friendship that basketball has created. It's truly lifelong, just like being on a team here in the States.

Q: How does FCP gain its funding to support all these children?

We're fortunate enough to have a very, very generous benefactor in Belfast who, when he was 16-years-old, had his life turned around when he participated in cross-community work. We'd be nowhere without him.

But we're also working hard to raise money with grant applications, private investors and small functions. It's the nature of the beast, a never ending fight to raise as much as possible. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:

Q: What is your ultimate goal to accomplish with FCP?

To have youth from several regions of the world develop strong, enduring friendships with other youth who they're not "supposed" to be friends with. And for it all to happen with the help of an orange ball and coach-turned peacemaker and ultimate mentor.

For more information regarding Full Court Peace, you can visit their website at

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