The Sanctuary of Sport: A Testimony of Olympism in Action

08/05/2016 12:19 am ET Updated Aug 05, 2017

Sport has always been a part of Jamal Khalil Atkins' life. The second son of Albert William Atkins and Jeannette Sykes Atkins, Jamal's parents incorporated a philosophy of life that exalted and combined a high respect of body, will and mind.

A longtime Baltimore City Department of Recreation & Parks recreation center leader, Sykes Atkins raised her boys in a home where physical education and well-being mattered. Mother Atkins stressed spiritual wellness, introducing Jamal and his older brother, Ajene, to living a life of purpose through Christ. She blended sport with culture and education, instilling in her children a sense of social responsibility, respect for universal fundamental ethical principles and the preservation of human dignity.

Jamal's father, Albert, was a two-sport student-athlete while attending Morgan State University. Competing well into his 60s, the elder Atkins passed on his enthusiasm and love of sport to his youngest son.

"Basketball helped me to form my sense of kinship with people I've played with all around the world," exclaimed Atkins. "Expressing love through basketball gives me the opportunity to fellowship and spread my passion for the game. Basketball is my quiet place. The place where I can find myself. The place I keep myself calm. And, the place for me to help people."

Like an evangelist spreading the gospel of sport and education or minister leading his congregation, Atkins uses his involvement with basketball to "speak to the young people I have in front of me" using the thought of collective agreement through sport. "Basketball allows me to do that," said Atkins.

During his high school years at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, Atkins was a tenacious member of the school's championship winning boy's basketball team. Since its inception, St. Frances Academy has addressed the societal forces disrupting the potential of children and their families. Forming a tradition of improving confidence, providing emotional support, and helping young people dream beyond themselves through academics, St. Frances Academy has embraced struggle, encouraged hope, and provided opportunity to hundreds of students.

"I had the blessing of working with one of the best high school basketball coaches in the country, Coach William Wells," Atkins explained. "As the oldest continuously operating, predominantly African-American Catholic High School in the world, St. Frances Academy was instrumental in my educational, athletic and personal development."

Atkins would go on to attend Shenandoah University, in Winchester, Virginia, a institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. The name of the institution and the valley where it was situated derived from the Native American legend of Zynodoa, a brave whose life of strength and courage and his appreciation of beauty resulted in having a river and a valley named for him.

Shenandoah University prides itself on practicing the highest ethical standards in its interactions with the community and with students of all faiths. Within a community of scholars, Shenandoah promotes the welfare of the whole person by fostering a nurturing environment in which students learn, grow, and flourish.

As a two-sport National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III student-athlete, playing lacrosse and basketball, "it was challenging to make the adjustment from living in Baltimore City to a campus in a small town in Virginia," Atkins explained. "But I learned a great deal while there, tapping in to the school's motto: Curiosity Required. I was inspired to be a critical, reflective thinker while at Shenandoah. I realized after graduating that I was aiming to be an ethical, compassionate citizen who is committed to making responsible contributions within my community and the world."

With an enduring passion for learning and using sport as a tool for peace and development, Atkins has often turned to his faith, and the basketball court, self-reflection and personal development. Through the game of basketball, for the past twenty plus years, Atkins has engaged diverse cultures, experiences, and perspectives.

"Coming to Africa was supposed to be a year of clarity for me," Atkins shared reflecting on his twelve years living and working on the continent. "I look back now and realize it was my calling. Going back to Africa was something we all talked about," said Atkins, "but didn't know how to make it happen or what that looked like to make it happen."

Similar to Hip-Hop artist Nas' character in the iconic movie Belly, Atkins was one of many young African-Americans wanting to connect to their culture, but unsure of how to do so.

"My steps were ordered, I was called to lead through sport," Atkins stated with conviction. Arriving in South Africa over a decade ago, Atkins believes his faith is what guided him to move to the continent which "saved my life."

Since landing in the Rainbow Nation, Atkins has worked with several organizations including PeacePlayers (formerly known as Playing for Peace), South Africa's Kearsney College, Harare International School and St. Georges College in Zimbabwe, Durban High School, Zambia Dairy Processors Association, NBA Basketball Without Borders Africa Camp, and the Zambia Basketball Federation (formerly known as the Zambia Basketball Association).

During his early days in South Africa, Atkins met and grew close to African-American pioneers in Africa, Michael Finley, Founder and Managing Director of Miles & Associates International (MAI), and Myke Scholl, MAI's Director of Sports and International Programs. A sports management consultancy focused on the development of the basketball industry on the African continent, Atkins shared Finley and Scholl's vision. Atkins also worked with and supported their non-governmental organization, African Youth Development Fund (AYDF), which specializes in the design and implementation of life skills programs for youth. Atkins would eventually settle in Zambia to set up his home base, continuing to use sport as his ministry.

"There's a spiritual element to sport. For me there's a spiritual element to basketball that I'm connected to. Some people have a quiet space in their home as a refuge. Some people go to place of prayer or worship for solace, quiet or fellowship. Some people go out on a hill to do yoga and talk with their God."

"The basketball court is my sanctuary. I pray for peace before I go on the court to play. I pray that I keep calm and peacefully express my passion and love for the game. If I'm having a challenging time in my life, I can go put up two, three, 400 shots and I relieve my stress. That 94 feet is my sanctuary!"

Shortly after arriving in Zambia, Atkins joined a men's fellowship basketball group that gathers on Saturday mornings at the Zamsure Sports Complex in Lusaka. The group, which has existed for more than 15 years, prays together before each session.

"Participating in groups like the men's fellowship on Saturday mornings and being active in the basketball community throughout Zambia and Southern Africa, I have been able to help young people prepare for high school and college in the United States and other countries."

Atkins formed the Basketball Academy of Excellence and has aided several of Zambia's high performing basketball players develop athletically and academically. Working closely with at least 50 students (10 having earned opportunities to study abroad), Atkins has honed his coaching skills by participating in the Federation of International Basketball Association (FIBA) related coaching engagements among many other development programs for basketball coaches.

"I'm pretty good at teaching things, helping others to become great student-athletes and citizens. I take my ability to reach young people through the sport of basketball, and through the Basketball Academy of Excellence, seriously. I want to impact as many young people as I possibly can. Not only that, I want to continue to raise awareness that basketball is able to inspire change for those that want to become better citizens. I want people to know how they can use sport to get a higher education, to earn a formal education, to transform their lives and communities," said Atkins.

"I want young adults and older people to know that they may not be able to use basketball to compete, but that the sport can be used to develop skills that may lead to their first job. My hope is that through basketball and sport, I can contribute to my people of African descent; our full enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights; and our full and equal participation in all aspects of our global society. Sport requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play which we can use as a model for all aspects of our lives."

Supporting Atkins' perspective, according to the United Nations Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group, sport is seen to have the most benefits in individual development; health promotion and disease prevention; promotion of gender equality; social integration and the development of social capital; peace building and conflict prevention/resolution; post-disaster/trauma relief and normalization of life; economic development; and communication and social mobilization.

"I've come to understand and seek greater knowledge of and respect for the diverse heritage, culture and contribution of people of African descent. Through my experiences in which sport was involved, I've come to recognize the power sport has to the development of societies."

Highly respected throughout the Greater Zambia community and his Woodlands, Lusaka neighborhood, Atkins is currently preparing members of the Zambia Men's National Basketball Team to participate in the upcoming HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge. Taking place at the Burnaby campus of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, the inaugural 16-team tournament features Aboriginal teams from North America, Indigenous and island nation teams including national teams of Bermuda, Tonga, South Sudan and Maori Basketball New Zealand.

"Knowing the United Nations General Assembly has declared 2015-2024 as the International Decade for People of African Descent, having the opportunity to participate in the World Indigenous Basketball Challenge is a blessing," said Atkins.

The tournament's director and head coach of the Skidegate Saints Men's Basketball Team, Dave Wahl, conceptualized it after a cultural exchange with his team's visit with the Maori people of New Zealand. "The Maori team performed a haka before games. It was an incredible experience. The players on our team were so excited. Our team performed Haida men's' dances after the games. I think the Maori people and our Haida people felt some sense of connection during our visit."

The cultural connection of sport described by Wahl is what led Atkins and Robert McCarron to be inspired to field a team in the HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge. A Massachusetts native and founder of the Coach in Zambia Foundation, McCarron shares Atkins passion to give youth of Zambia opportunities they would not ordinarily be exposed to.

"Rob, Obed Shamboko and other coaches wanted the national team to participate in the tournament. Rob has been instrumental in raising funds for the trip, however we will only have 9 members of our national team when we compete. We're still actively seeking funding to support our trip, pay for airfare, meals while we are there and first aid equipment. Ideally we would be able to provide our players stipends, but unfortunately we're simply not in a position to do that."

Having completed the FIBA Africa Coaches Committee Young Coach Module 2, Atkins is eager to testing his coaching skills during the HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge.

"I was recently in Durban during the International AIDS Conference and got a chance to see a few of my former students and those I worked with. I went to see a former player Natasha Roodt and her mom Claudett Roodt, a parent who was in a program I ran. I didn't realize how important it was for me to see them. Claudett was crying saying 'you took time to come see us.' She went on to show me a trophy we gave her for her contributions to our program, that was amazing to me," Atkins humbly stated.

"I went to find my former student Rocco Fontana, a born leader who is preparing for the launch of his own brewery. His father, Raoul, is a successful businessman that taught his children to be business minded. Rocco told me 'this would not have been possible without you. You made me believe in myself.' Meanwhile his dad is in the background saying 'I can't think about the time you spent with him and not get emotional. I wish I could bring that time back. That gave him everything he needed to be the man he is today.' I was floored, but all I was doing was coaching basketball," Atkins said matter-of-factly.

Atkins knows sport is not a cure-all for development and societal problems. But as a cultural phenomenon, sport is a mirror of society and is just as complex and contradictory. Nonetheless, the basketball court will continue to be Atkins' sanctuary and house of fellowship and worship.

"I wear a dog-tag that says 'To Whom Much is Given, Much is Required,' and I live by that motto. Luke 12:48. It's as simple as that."

To support the Zambia National Basketball Team and their participation in the HaiCo World Indigenous Basketball Challenge, visit www.gofundme.com/27at57jy. For details on the Basketball Academy of Excellence visit www.facebook.com/BasketballAcademyofExcellence.