A dozen lanky teenagers, clad in matching black uniforms and gray sneakers, huddled in the center of the basketball court at Israel’s Wingate Institute for sports. They broke formation with a clap and got into a line at the court’s center circle. Overseeing the players was Omri Casspi, Israel’s first NBA player and one of the coaches at this week’s Basketball Without Borders program.
The training camps, which are organized by the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) worldwide, are meant to both help young players develop and foster understanding between players of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The program in Israel brought Jewish, Palestinian, Druze and Christian players together, along with dozens of Europe’s top teenage prospects.
In a nod to the ongoing development of Israeli basketball, the program is being held in the country for the first time.
The NBA and FIBA held the first Basketball Without Borders camp in July 2001. The program has visited 25 countries since and hosted over 2,720 participants from 134 countries and territories. Fifty-one of those players have reached the NBA, including Casspi, who attended the program before launching his career with the Sacramento Kings.
“I remember sitting right where you are now back in 2005,” Casspi told the campers at a training session Monday morning. “I urge you to use this opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business, some of the best in the game.”
Other coaches at this week’s camp include NBA legend and 10-time All-Star David Robinson, and current NBA players Jerryd Bayless, Sam Dekker and Norman Powell. They will be coaching 42 boys and 20 girls from 22 countries in Europe along with local players (Israel is part of FIBA’s Europe zone).
The program is about more than reaching the NBA, though, said Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner.
“While these are elite players, young men and young women, I think we all know that making it to be a professional player, whether it’s in the NBA or the WNBA or another league, is quite difficult,” Silver said. “I think that part of what makes the NBA great is this ongoing ability to bring people together, to unify people through sports.”
Basketball Without Borders, which held a session with Israeli and Palestinian players in Jerusalem on Sunday, partnered with the Jerusalem International YMCA to dedicate a new basketball center there.
“Bringing together those young Israeli and Palestinian boys and girls to play basketball is one of the reasons we’re here,” Silver said. “We know that the Jerusalem YMCA is going to continue to be a place for young people of different ethnicities, different religions, different nationalities to come together.”
A training session in Tel Aviv on Wednesday will include 80 young players from Israel’s Jewish, Muslim, Druze and Christian communities.
“This week is also about the power of sport, which we all love, in its ability to unite people from different backgrounds toward a common goal,” Casspi said. “Take the time to forge those bonds that can go beyond the basketball court and make you a better citizen of the world.”
The decision to host the camp in Israel was also a nod to the recent strides of Israeli basketball. Later this summer, Israel will co-host FIBA’s EuroBasket championship with Romania, Finland and Turkey.
“For the Israeli Basketball Association, it’s a very exciting summer,” said Amiram Halevy, the association’s president.
Basketball Without Borders is part of the NBA’s effort to internationalize the sport and reach a wider audience around the world. Last year, 25 percent of NBA players were born outside the United States. That was largely due to efforts by the NBA and FIBA, including Basketball Without Borders, and to digital and social media, which allow young players to learn from instructional videos, highlight videos and other materials online, Silver said.
In addition to Casspi, well-known Israelis at Monday’s session included Gal Mekel, Israel’s second NBA player; David Blatt, the Israeli-American former coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers; and former WNBA player and Israeli National Women’s team member Shay Doron.
“For a very small country, the quality of the basketball is outstanding, and the fans are very knowledgeable here and it’s my anticipation that other players will follow in the footsteps of Omri and move on to the NBA,” Silver said.