Jewish and Arab high-school students hustled across the gym, swiftly passing basketballs, dribbling across the court and shooting baskets in an intense simultaneous three-part drill. Conducting the entire operation were 14 former NBA players on an eight-day tour of Israel.
The players were part of a training workshop that took place Wednesday to bring Jews and Arabs together through basketball at the Hand-in-Hand school, a unique bilingual school in Jerusalem for Jews and Arabs. The students at the event play for the school’s basketball team and participate in PeacePlayers International, an organization that uses the game of basketball and a conflict resolution curriculum to bring youth together where regional tension exists.
The former basketball stars are members of the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA). They were brought to Israel by The American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) an affiliate of the American pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, to gain a better understanding of the US-Israel relationship.
Towering over the young high-schoolers, the former NBA players divided the group into three, demonstrating each drill or move for the students to replicate.
Within minutes, there was no one on the court who hadn’t broken sweat, as the young players focused in on and mimicked their new coaches’ moves.
Duha, 17, an Israeli Arab student who plays for the school’s basketball team, was on a huge adrenaline rush after meeting and playing the game she loves with the former NBA players.
“I just feel so lucky to have met them,” she said. “They are the legends of basketball. Few people can say they have been coached by an NBA player.”
She was especially excited to meet Marvin Roberts of the Los Angeles Lakers and Joe Barry Caroll, who finished his career with the Golden State Warriors.
Roberts, who is also on the board of directors for the NBRPA, sat down with the Times of Israel after the workshop to discuss his trip to Israel and the role basketball can play in bringing Jewish and Arab youth together.
This is his first visit, and he said he was incredibly excited to see the Holy Land and get a real understanding of the country.
“This has given me the opportunity to see first-hand how the people of Israel live,” he said. “They are so wonderfully hospitable and I was surprised at how familiar they have been with the NBA,” he said.
Roberts said he was most surprised at the level of diversity in Israel’s religious groups. “I hope to be able to speak intelligently about my country’s relationship with Israel and use my knowledge to educate my peers about the Middle East and Israel,” he said.
Discussing the training workshop, Roberts said that basketball is a great way to bring youth together in tense environments. “Sports is universal, basketball is universal and the kids were very enthusiastic to meet us,” he said. “Conflict does not involve kids. What we can do to help fix it is bring the youth together to play this game,” he said.
The evening ended with high fives, hugs and autographs, and the starstruck youths walked out of the gym with their new friends.
The NBA players will be here for several more days, touring, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and experts, and learning about the partnership between the U.S. and Israel — on and off the court.