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One Season to Go: Basketball Diplomacy

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I spent this past weekend in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on a research and basketball clinic visit. The daily murder rate has decreased to something around six. It was at 15 or so the first time I went in 2009.

I followed my usual routine by flying into El Paso, taking a cab to my hotel, and waiting for communication from the U.S. Consulate in Juarez. They are truly the only means of getting in and out of the murder capital of Mexico, providing bulletproof and armored Suburbans driven by extremely street savvy drivers who know how to avoid red lights and traffic. I've really never been a big fan of any government, but I owe a lot of thanks and appreciation to my good friends at the consulate.

Some of my players from Stamford Academy, as well as other students with whom I have bonded, texted me when I landed in El Paso. "Yo coach, send me a picture of that bulletproof car they take you to Mexico in." They're fascinated by the level of violence in Juarez, as well as by its connection to the global drug trade. All it really took for me to engage them with the work I do through Full Court Peace (FCP) was by explaining Juarez's connection to cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia. "The drugs travel up through Central America, into Mexico, and then the war begins, people fighting over who gets to sell the drugs to Americans." Very often while we're discussing this topic, they recite rap lyrics that contain bits of pieces of the production of drugs, famous drug dealers like Pablo Escobar, and such.

And it's usually an easy transition to take them, still fully engaged, to discuss both the history of Northern Ireland and the Cuban Embargo and the work Full Court Peace has done it both locations. Usually, though, I have to show them YouTube videos of insanely violent riots in Belfast, or extreme poverty in Cuba.

This was the first time I didn't feel anxious before going over the border. In 2009 -- when I once decided to drive into Juarez by myself in a Toyota 4Runner, and ask people for directions to local basketball courts (the dumbest thing I've ever done) -- I was a wreck even when going in with the U.S. Government.

The first time I ever set foot in Juarez, I saw a pregnant, American woman dead in the street, her body riddled with bullets, which didn't soothe my nerves. She was a consulate employee, as well. That was the very first high profile hit in Juarez, and since then I've been hooked and generally scared.

But since then, my sense of invincibility has increased. Like when I was dealing with the IRA in Belfast, I've achieved an illogical line of thinking that nothing bad can ever happen to me. Each time I dare to do something else and get away with it, I am more confident to take on the next task.

On Saturday, I spent a few hours touring basketball courts in Juarez that I found using Google Satellite. About a year ago I was tooling around on the Internet after the last time I went to the border, and located a cluster of courts that, even from a view from the sky, obviously needed repair. Then I got this crazy idea, stealing a page out of a Harvard Kennedy School case, to try and build a demilitarized zone out of these courts, which youth and their families could be sure drug violence could not penetrate. It's a lofty idea, but I'm going to do it. Lofty, but what the hell is anyone else doing in Juarez?

It did come into my mind at some point on Saturday, in between walking around these small neighborhoods, that I could be shot and killed. I'm not sure what keeps me from running away, but only the prospect of getting such a project off the ground.

On Sunday, I helped lead a basketball clinic for over 300 Juarez youth, age eight to 18, teaching them 25 Harlem Globetrotter dribbling tricks that they can take home and practice. I stood on a stage in a 5,000-person basketball arena -- leading them through each trick, announcing it on a microphone in English and then in Spanish, and then demonstrating it. Johnson and Johnson, which has a plant in Juarez, provided 30 volunteers for the event, who helped the kids attempt each trick. Every three tricks or so, I'd pull a kid up on stage and let him or her show off their skills in front of the entire crowd. The pride on their faces was beyond question.

But while the clinic was a great experience, it can't end there. Follow up is a key element to youth work in war zones. It's long-term involvement that changes the personalities of youth, which strengthens their character, not one-off dribbling clinics.

I left Juarez very hopeful for the construction of the demilitarized zone, or the "FCP DMZ" as I have named it. It didn't feel like I was leaving a war zone; it just felt like I was saying goodbye to friends that I've made through working there, and a small part of my mind sneaked away and started hoping they wouldn't get killed before the next time I saw them.

I have yet to achieve the same sense of comfort that I have in Juarez in the neighborhoods that my players in Stamford and Bridgeport call home.

For instance, a few weeks ago my principal asked me to go out and sign a kid up for enrollment at our school. He wasn't allowed to leave his house because his monitoring bracelet did not permit him to do so. But he was a basketball player and might be able to relate to me and therefore want to enroll.

I pulled up to his housing complex. The surrounding homes were dilapidated, cars wobbled on cinderblocks, and a lot of people wandered the streets seemingly without direction.

His mother buzzed me up to their floor, and as soon as I entered the apartment, she barraged me with a litany of questions about our school, whether her son would be safe there, and whether it was the right choice to make.

She then admitted she had no other choice. She said it was the scariest day of her life when she walked outside the apartment to seeing her son being arrested. "They found a gun on him. I mean, what would ever make him carry a gun?"

Her son entered the room and I shook his hand. He seemed scared, or at least nervous to be around me. He was tall and skinny and seemed frail. But he had a great nervous smile and I instantly liked him.

His mother insisted he and I go and talk in his bedroom. As I followed him there I looked down at his ankle and saw his monitoring bracelet and its flashing red light. I couldn't imagine any situation in which such a device would be necessary for this kid. We have much more serious cases at our school. We have kids who, to an outsider, would appear to be big, angry, and nasty. This kid is the opposite; it just seemed inappropriate.

Once I got him talking about basketball and how much fun we'd have he started to loosen up. His mother finally signed the papers to enroll him in school because I assured her that we had an amazing staff that would keep a special eye on him. And it's true, we will.

They're a lot like Juarez, Connecticut's tougher cities. There is no guarantee for a young person who does not have a program to be a part of that they'll make it out, or even survive. Every city could use a DMZ.