Note: I wrote the following entry, as well as some of the next few entries of this blog, between September 1st, 2011 and November 27th, 2011. From here on out, I will continue to write current entries as I also post related stories from the past three months.
When I was in sixth grade, my dad told me he gave money (albeit in cash at Irish bars in Boston) to Sinn Fein. That's the political wing of the IRA, he told me, a group of men fighting to keep Ireland free.
"So, wait, you gave it to those guys, the guys with guns? Or you gave it to politicians?" I asked.
"I don't know where it went." He was, and still is, a matter-of-fact type. A staunch Republican from the rough streets of the Southside of Chicago. A pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, hand-nothing-to-anyone type.
Later that night I felt it necessary to bring up the topic in front of my bleeding-heart mother. You know, from Seattle, thinks everyone deserves 10 chances in life.
(I am exaggerating; they are amazing people and amazing parents. But just get in your head that they are polar opposites in the political spectrum.)
"Dad, I can't believe you gave money to the IRA!" I said. It was quite a misinterpretation.
My mom had just taken a big bite of salad. Before she could get out a word, my dad said, "Well, you give money to NPR."
And that was the end of dinner in a marriage still happily going strong.
Hearing the constant battles between my mother and father certainly introduced me to the idea of political division. But overall, the homogenous bubble in which I grew up rarely, if ever, exposed me to the harsh realities of the real world.
That was until the eighth grade, when I was selected to play for a travel basketball team in New Haven, CT. On the first day of practice, I realized that I was one of two white kids on the team, and that I was the only kid from lower Fairfield County. Some of my teammates had taken the bus to practice. The bus? What bus?
As naïve and cliché as it sounds, the experience shaped me to realize something quite elementary. I had a lot and these other guys had very little. It was the first time I'd ever heard someone talk about having their electricity turned off -- who turned it off, I wondered.
Despite the drastic differences in nearly every part our lives, that team grew together. Sure, we had a common goal in winning, and we communicated through basketball. But what we loved most was hanging out together in the hotel rooms and at restaurants. Basketball was the vehicle that brought us there, and we even explicitly talked about that. As we became great friends -- we stayed intact as a team for three years -- it made me more and more conscious of their plight, and I figured there was a big mutual benefit to our friendship and to helping each other out. And that compassion stayed with me, more than I ever knew it.
A good playing career at both the high school and college level later, I found myself face-to-face with the highest-ranking members of the IRA in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Okay, okay, I guess that's skipping a lot of the story.
For the past six years, I've been on a crazy journey, and it's really all because of basketball.
I love basketball. Well, I don't really love the strategy, the competition, or even actually playing the game. I love the camaraderie a player has with his teammates, and I love the role a coach can play in a kid's life. And for those two things in particular, I've been willing to do a lot, and bend my life in all types of ways.
I was an underwear model for Calvin Klein, for example, because of basketball. I wrote and produced for Fox News, all because of basketball. And now I take covert trips to Cuba, hiding from their government, and into Ciudad Juarez, Mexico in bulletproof cars and with bodyguards because of, you guessed it, basketball.
And now my next journey is about to begin, in the ghettos of Connecticut (yes, some streets in Connecticut aren't paved with gold) as I try and reach the world's most difficult demographic: the young, black American male.
The kids I am working with aren't your typical disenfranchised, black teenagers. I'm talking about young men who have been thrown out of some of the nation's toughest public schools in Bridgeport, Norwalk, and Stamford. I'm talking about offenders, kids who have allegedly invaded homes, burglarized, shot at people, and assaulted people.
I'm talking about the real deal, inner city, street and gang life. This is not something you see in a movie. This is these boys' last chance at life. Literally. This blog will explore the efforts being made to educate youth like these boys; what works, what doesn't and why.
This blog is a compilation of many stories. It's the story of the first team I ever coached; the Belfast Blazers, a half-Catholic, half-Protestant boys high school basketball team from the segregated neighborhoods of Belfast, Northern Ireland.
It's the story of remarkable happenings in some of the world most strife-stricken places. It's the story of witnessing dead bodies in the streets of Juarez, shaking hands with the Dalai Lama in Belfast, being followed by undercover government officials in Cuba, and living on peanuts while couch surfing in Connecticut.
This is the story of Full Court Peace, a nonprofit organization I am desperately trying to build as everyone around me tries to understand why I'm doing all of this. And as I try to build it, I run even more low on gas in my do-good tank.
It's the story of my journey to figure out what the heck to do with my life, and whether to continue this work in such a tough economic environment, while I wonder if I'm really supposed to be where I am.
Finally, it's the story of where I am now, as the new head coach of the Stamford Academy Spartans, and the lives of the kids I coach, as well as the kids I encounter working in the school.
Last year, the team won zero games. This year, well, I guess we'll see what happens.