PeacePlayers International: A World of Difference

Editor's note:
Through its dedication to the community, the Thunder strives to prove the value of basketball, beyond the court. For the past five years, Thunder General Manager Sam Presti has participated in Peace Players International, a program that uses the game to help improve divided communities worldwide. Following his week with young people in Israel this summer, Presti shared his thoughts on the program, its impact and how it is an extension of the Thunder's commitment to the community.

Giving back and being involved in our community have been part of the Thunder organization since our arrival in 2008. Being in a state with as much civic pride as Oklahoma has given all of us at the Thunder an appreciation for people coming together. Our community has demonstrated special attributes in areas that transcend sports, and one of those areas is a universal appreciation for authentic effort and energy in the area of unconditionally supporting and helping others. I have found that people from Oklahoma see absolutely no boundaries when it comes to sacrifice and service, and this is why I would like to share with you a glimpse into an on-going effort taking place many miles away from the Chesapeake Energy Arena. In fact, we could fit 386,563 basketball courts between where we wake up every day and where the game of basketball is hard at work to support and help other communities.

The location is Israel and the West Bank, and the organization is PeacePlayers International, or PPI. PPI’s belief and mission are sewn together as tight as the net hanging from every ten-foot goal in the world: Children that play together can learn to live together.

PeacePlayers International has been using basketball to unite young people in divided communities since 2001. They currently operate programs in South Africa, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Israel and the West Bank. More than 52,000 young people have passed through the program. My week-long visit to the program in Israel and the West Bank comes on the heels of 5,500 Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian children having been a part of PPI in the Middle East since 2005. Our itinerary took us throughout the region bringing the message of peace, communication and understanding through basketball to boys and girls in Jerusalem, Zichron Ya’akov and Ramallah. At each stop we would see young people of all ages and religions coming from various surrounding cities and communities. The drills and games were great of course; it’s basketball - a universal sport of skill, grace and team. However, what really had a great impact on me about each interaction with these young people was the way in which PPI had built its initiative. PPI resisted mass production in the pursuit of quick statistics to focus on the quality and efficiency of the program. This started with finding exactly the right coaches and mentors to bring their message into the communities and gyms. They thought big, but built small. They were so specific and defined that one of their goals in 2005 was to have their first wave of older participants embark on a development track that would enable them to one day become leaders of the program…and I witnessed just that. The program has effectively established a pathway for young adults through their Leadership Development Training program which provides seminars on conflict resolution and transformation, coaching and teaching as well as leadership within communities.

I had the great privilege to join PPI for a week together with RC Buford, Executive Vice President and General Manager from the San Antonio Spurs and Chad Ford, a Conflict Resolution Professor from BYU/Hawaii as well as an ESPN analyst. We were even joined by representatives of PPI’s partner organization, USAID, which provides significant funding for the program. Together we made our way through Israel and the West Bank meeting an amazing array of people who are doing incredible work and giving their time to build relationships that most would feel too overwhelmed to pursue. The young adults and young leaders I met had the same two characteristics: courage and open-mindedness. Their mere participation is a revealing look at their ambitions and potential, but also speaks volumes about the people that are raising and mentoring them at such pivotal ages. I think I can safely say I learned more on this trip than I taught by way of the basketball drills we implemented.

The work that is being done by PeacePlayers and other international conflict resolution and relief efforts deserves a collective tip of the cap from our community. Why? Because Oklahoma City is about sacrifice and service and our respect for these qualities does not lessen outside of our state.

Please take a moment to learn more about what PeacePlayers International is doing. And the next time you are around young people passing the ball back and forth in a stuffy gym or breezy outdoor court, remember that there are people working incredibly hard and agencies rewarding grants to make those passes just a little bit easier with the hope that those children’s virtues and intent one day extends into communities, businesses and even politics.

I learned a great deal during this experience, from the young women in Ramallah and emerging leaders in Jerusalem, to the spirit of understanding in the gym in Zichron Ya’akov. Nevertheless, due to the extraordinary efforts of all of the donors, volunteers, coaches, and parents supporting PeacePlayers in Israel and the West Bank, the one constant theme clear to me as we moved from court to court witnessing countless collaborative interactions take place, was that the only boundaries in a Peace Players gym are the ones painted on the court.

Thanks for supporting Thunder Basketball and the Thunder Organization, we truly appreciate your continued support.