After one of his first visits to Seeds of Peace camp, and witnessing the rare interactions between Israeli and Palestinian youths, former NBA player B.J. Armstrong was quickly humbled.
“We talk about war, but these kids have lived it,” he said. “The thing I’ve learned from this is that I don’t know anything.”
Celtics rookie Marcus Smart will receive his own education in the world’s most unrelenting conflict today, when the camp holds its annual NBA players clinic.
Agent Arn Tellem went to this camp on the shore of Maine’s Lake Pleasant as a boy, when it was called Camp Powhatan. Eight years after the late journalist John Wallach opened the site to Israeli and Palestinian youth, Tellem began encouraging clients like Armstrong, Brian Scalabrine and LaMarcus Aldridge to mix with the campers.
The result is the session Smart will help run today along with players like fellow rookie Joel Embiid and Scalabrine, who now directs the clinic. The conditions are always charged, especially when the campers meet at night in an attempt to talk out their differences. But in certain years the tension spikes.
When Armstrong spoke of his ignorance in the summer of 2006, Hezbollah was firing missiles into northern Israel, prompting a surge into southern Lebanon by the Israeli army. Approximately 1,800 people, the vast majority of Palestinians in Gaza, have died over the last two months as the result of shelling between Hamas and Israel.
This week’s 180 campers include what, in Tellem’s words, are a “handful” of children from Gaza.
“From what I’ve been told, they were among the last people to make it over the Egyptian crossing before the borders were closed,” said Tellem.
Smart will teach basketball to an adoring group of youngsters today, but he stands to learn more from them.
“I can learn a tremendous amount from them,” he said last night. “No matter how old or young, or big or small, there is something you can take away from everyone. But I know this is also going to be a great opportunity to put some smiles on some kids’ faces.”
Smart admittedly hasn’t had much time to prepare for this visit. His summer has been crammed with a chain of new experiences, starting with the NBA draft and the Orlando Summer League. He was one of only two rookies (along with Chicago’s Doug McDermott) invited to Las Vegas as part of the USA Select Team, to spar with players attempting to make the U.S. national team.
He spent Wednesday in New Jersey, immersed in the NBA’s rookie transition program.
By the time he landed at Portland International Jetport last night, Smart’s mind was racing, but also tired.
“I’ve only heard a little bit about what’s happening over there,” he said of Gaza. “I’ve had so much I’ve been trying to get together this summer.”
On a certain level, Smart will be able to empathize. He grew up in a very tough neighborhood in the Dallas area, with some well-documented early challenges in his life. Some of the children he’ll meet today have known little beyond constant strife in lives disrupted by war.
In that respect, though, Smart isn’t deluding himself.
“To be honest, I can’t relate to it like that,” he said. “It’s very different from my situation.”
Tellem has little doubt, however, that by the end of the day Smart will find common ground with some new friends from halfway across the world.
“Marcus has so much sensitivity and empathy; he’ll connect with these kids,” said Tellem. “Empathy is the most important quality in this situation. Many of the players and kids end up staying in contact with each other, emailing each other. Scal has been coming here every year since his first summer. He’s a fixture at the camp.”
Smart, once his head clears from this whirlwind summer, will form similar bonds. Based on what Tellem has seen since he first started bringing players in 2002, Smart is on the verge of a rare education.
“The players get as much out of it, if not more than the children,” said Tellem. “For the players it’s life-changing. A lot of them end up following these events, and have a continued interest.
“But the next few days are going to be even more poignant for a kid like Marcus. The kids have just got here, too, and they’re just adapting. They’re all concerned about their families back home. It’s really a critical moment for the children when the players arrive. They’ve already been through some very intensive dialogue sessions. They could use a break.”