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Preaching Basketball Without the Baggage

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While trying to downplay differences in the world, Dave Cullen is doing his part to make a world of difference. The founder of Full Court Peace (FCP), an organization that bridges gaps through basketball, sat down with me last week to discuss his organization's role in curing conflict and addressing the longstanding prejudice that persists in his native city of Belfast, Northern Ireland.

An ESPN Espy winner for its humanitarian work and mission, FCP has grown in size and prominence over the past few years, under the direction of Cullen and others. People, Cullen says, have been quick to get behind FCP's mission, providing both publicity and charitable donations. This is not surprising once you consider that the worthy cause preaches tolerance, education, exercise and advocacy to young students. All in an afternoon's work.

Designed and run as an after-school program for students of different religions, FCP must be sensitive to students' preconceived notions and personal anecdotes of what their counterparts may preach, believe or represent. To accommodate everyone's needs and beliefs, Cullen has designed the program's attitude, drills and schedule to keep basketball as the major intended interest of the organization. Any lessons in tolerance come exclusively through students' interaction with each other; FCP does not want its staff to see itself as interventionists or conflict resolvers. The goal of the program, as Cullen puts it, is to provide "basketball without the baggage."

There's something inherently pleasing about this focused mission and enterprise. You see, Protestant and Catholic children enter the program most likely with some sense of hatred for their opponents. They face off with other students their age who they have been largely segregated from for much of their lives. Some have grown to fear others, others have grown fed up. FCP offers a court where kids can set aside that emotional burdens of living amid the struggle.

The students'' perceived opponents, of a larger historical and religious context, are replaced by opponents of a more competitive and athletic nature. Once their rivals - and the game - have changed, it's organizers, leaders and donors hope that the students will translate positive messages of teamwork from the court to those of harmony off of it. Pairing up students of different backgrounds has wound up influencing some to replace animosity for more promising, auspicious intensity.

Cullen modestly points out that FCP delivers a platform for the kids to improve their basketball skills under the leadership of qualified and understanding coaches. Whatever else the students take away from FCP is entirely up to them to take advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

For that reason, working with this teenage sect can be an equally frustrating and rewarding task. Depending on the teen, coaches and counselors will encounter everything from open-minded optimism to stubborn resistance in the faces and actions of its constituents. Cullen cites several examples, though, of those who have taken measures to improve their lives and to alter their viewpoints, even just a little bit.

So, the goal of the organization is not change people, but to get their students to at least begin to consider the opposing viewpoint. Cullen himself admits that much of his life has been impacted by the ongoing conflict between the two opposing sides in his region. He says that he still struggles to forgive past clashes, especially the violent ones, committed in the name of religious conflict and personal strife.

Having Cullen at the helm of the program provides a necessary example for the kids of how severely exhausting the toll of this deep-rooted war has been on some Irish citizens. While talking about basketball strategy, Cullen can focus on the intricacies of the game, including how to successfully run a press defense and how to build creative offensive schemes. Yet, when it comes to most other topics related to Irish life - everything outside of basketball, really - Cullen's tone and demeanor take a turn to those of a more soft-spoken, conflicted man seeking a more peaceful and compassionate franchise.