BY BRAD PARKS | The premise of the whole thing was a little backwards to begin with.
A batch of NBA players traveled to a summer camp in Maine to spend time with 200 teenagers from the Middle East who were trying to help solve the world’s problems. The kids are the future leaders of a region that has been one of the world’s most conflict-ridden for generations. They were working to overcome a couple thousand years of divergent histories and religions, a clash of cultures that has resulted in new bloodshed nearly every day, and about a half-century of ingrained hatred—one ropes course, one camp cheer, one grueling mediation session at a time. And they were actually making some progress.
Now here’s the backwards part: The campers were supposed to be learning things from the NBA players. After two days at the Seeds of Peace International Camp this summer, Nets center Jason Collins and Nets forward Brian Scalabrine could promise you it was very much the other way around.
Collins and Scalabrine were two of the six NBA players invited to put on a basketball clinic for the kids. For two days, what the players got from the campers was nothing less than an education in world geopolitics and an eye-opening introduction into a reality very foreign to their own. They heard about what it meant to live in fear of Israeli soldiers or Palestinian suicide bombers; sat in on a “co-existence session” where kids who had been raised to espouse diametrically opposed beliefs about the same issues struggled to understand each other’s points of view; ate meals with Palestinian teenagers, who until a few weeks earlier had never shared a meal with, or even talked to, an Israeli teenager — and vice versa.
They didn’t know what they were getting into at first. Their shared agent, Arn Tellem—an American Jew and a Seeds of Peace Board Member—simply told them he had an interesting opportunity for them. It was July. They had nothing better to do. They both said yes. Neither had much background in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. So as Tellem gave them some of the basics—how a failed United Nations plan and a successful war created the Israeli nation state out of what used to be called Palestine in 1948, how the two sides had been fighting over lost land and ancient turf claims ever since, and how a variety of peace proposals had in some ways only widened the divide.
“A lot of it was news to me,” Scalabrine said.
“I had taken some history classes,” Collins said. “But this really made it real.”
The first person they met with was an Palestinian counselor who explained to them that, yes, he was almost killed when a bus was blown up by some Israeli soldiers and that, yes, he now helped tuck Israeli kids into bed at night.
“I don’t care who you are, whether you’re an NBA player or not,” said Bob Myers, an agent who works with Tellem and also accompanied the players at the camp. “Everybody who goes to that camp leaves a different person. Whether it’s 180 degrees or just 10 degrees, you can’t help but be changed by what you see and hear.”
If nothing else, they made some new fans, like Lelia Taha Burt, a 14-year-old Egyptian girl who attended the camp. A few weeks ago, she and a group of kids from Seeds of Peace came to a Nets preseason game against the Sixers. They were the ones who started the “Ole, Ole” soccer cheer mid-way through the third quarter.
“To tell you the truth?” Burt said. “I don’t think many of us are really into the whole basketball thing.” Still, she enjoyed seeing her buddies from the Nets: Scalabrine, who she called “the guy with red hair,” and Collins, who she called “the really tall guy with a twin.”
“Sorry,” Burt said. “I don’t know names that well. Some of us were talking while we were there about how much some people care about sports. But when you think about it? They really don’t matter all that much.”
Funny. That’s the same conclusion Collins and Scalabrine came up with—that for however grueling an 82-game schedule was, it really didn’t compare to life in a place where you can’t take peace for granted.
“It just opens your eyes that the world is a lot more than just driving down Route 17 to get to practice and hoping you don’t hit traffic,” Scalabrine said.
“It puts things in perspective,” Collins said. “People here think Red Sox-Yankees is bad. These kids have serious issues.”
They’re the same kind of issues world leaders grapple with daily. “But we do it on a lot more hopeful level,” Burt said. “Sometimes I think world leaders don’t really want peace. They need wars because it helps keep them in office. I hope someday we’ll have leaders who really want peace.”
Scalabrine came away with a different hope. “I hope that someday the leaders are the kids who came from Seeds of Peace,” Scalabrine said. “One of these days, one of these kids is going to change the world.”