How basketball can live up to the ideals of Dr. Naismith

Dr. James Naismith was a professor, a coach and a Presbyterian Minister. But, it is not these achievements that he is remembered for.

Armstrong 224.88 (photo credit: Joseph D. Robbins)
Armstrong 224.88
(photo credit: Joseph D. Robbins)
Dr. James Naismith was a professor, a coach and a Presbyterian Minister. But, it is not these achievements that he is remembered for. Born on November 6, 1861, Dr. Naismith invented the game of basketball. When asked about the invention that he saw become an Olympic sport three years before his death in 1939, Naismith replied that he was sure "no man could derive more pleasure from money or power than I do from seeing a pair of basketball [hoops] in some out of the way place." Now, 69 years after his death, the 13-rule game he created -12 of which are still used today - has swept the globe, capturing the hearts of millions of fans along the way. As the head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, a team that is to this day one of the most powerful American college basketball programs, Naismith once told his players to, "be strong in body, clean in mind, lofty in ideals." It was the only way of life for Naismith, and it was the foundation for the game he originally created for schoolboys. On January 4, 2008, a member of the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball squad was out celebrating his 25th birthday when he was involved in an altercation that left himself in prison, and one man in the hospital. I do not know Will Bynum. He went to my alma mater, the University of Arizona, but left the year before I arrived. After graduating from college and spending time in the National Basketball Development League, the Chicago playground legend joined my hometown Golden State Warriors. Although I have seen him play in Oakland, California and here in Tel Aviv, I have never met him. I also do not know Bar Natan Burson, the Dimona resident injured in the incident. I do not know what will happen in the court proceedings, and while I wish everybody a quick, safe recovery and resolution to the tragic events, my life will not be changed by the outcome. A die-hard sports fan and writer, I have long been de-sensitized to the problems surrounding the sports I love and cover. Be it racism or violence, hooliganism or performance enhancements, it seems that the majority of non-game related sports reports involve negative events. In the NBA it was a brawl involving players and fans, and it was a referee throwing games to pay off debts owed to loan sharks. In the NFL it was the trial of the last century and the defendant's seemingly never-ending fall from grace, and it was a grisly dog-fighting ring that landed a top star in federal penitentiary. In track and field and world cycling it was doping allegations, and in tennis it was gambling and match-fixing. Finally, in baseball it is steroids, which have reduced the brightest hitter and pitcher of the last generation to nothing more than lies and cheats. As depressing as it may sound, it is the type of robot that so many of us die-hard sports fans have become. We are so used to various problems surrounding games that we love, that we have accepted that them as part of the game. Were these the lofty ideals that Dr. Naismith was referring to? Luckily, the "NBA Cares." BJ Armstrong was a high-school basketball star in his home state of Michigan, before occupying the same role at the University of Iowa. After being selected by the NBA's Chicago Bulls, Armstrong went on to win three championships with the team, alongside the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. This past Wednesday afternoon, I traveled to Be'er Tuvia to see a 40-year-old retired basketball star, who has continued to be as well-liked and as big of a mensch as he was while he was playing professional basketball. Along with the program's coaches, the guest of the Peres Center for Peace led a clinic to promote the Center's Twinned Basketball School program. The program, dedicated to promoting peace and friendship between its participants, pairs Israeli and Palestinian children together in athletics. Split between basketball, soccer and recently added Australian Football, 2,000 children - half of them Israeli, half Palestinian - come together as teammates and friends. With the support of super-agent Arn Tellem and the "NBA Cares" program, which sends current and former NBA players all over the world to do charitable work, Armstrong was headed to a small gym with concrete floors to promote peace. "This is what Naismith meant when he said lofty in ideals," I thought as I watched young girls from different worlds embrace each other. This project is at the heart of what Naismith was hoping to accomplish with the love people had for his game. Basketball is not money or arrests or steroids or cheating. Basketball is Ariel Goldberg, a 12-year-old girl from Moshav Timorim, three minutes outside of Be'er Tuvia. Although Ariel has only been playing the game for a little more than a year, it has become her favorite sport because of the friendships she has made. According to Ariel, her favorite thing about basketball is meeting and playing with the Arabic girls who have become her close friends. Basketball is a 12-year-old Israeli girl learning a new sport so she could spend time with the Arab friends it has introduced her to. Basketball is kids from Rafah and Israel laughing, hugging and participating together during an hour-long practice before their beloved NBA star arrived. And that is the beauty of the program. BJ Armstrong did an amazing job running a clinic for the girls, teaching them drills and fundamentals and giving them the opportunity to feel good about themselves and each other. He clapped whenever a shot was made or a pass was bounced, and he distributed high-fives and hugs the way he used to distribute the ball to Michael Jordan and Steve Kerr. The kids loved BJ, but they did not want to be him. While the girls were giddy over seeing him, they were happy where they were, running drills arm-in-arm, unafraid to stand side-by-side with their friends, regardless of where they called home when not at practice. Basketball is Ariel Goldberg and her friend Lateefa, and it is all of their other friends and teammates in the Twinned program. Will BJ Armstrong, the Peres Center and the continued work of its program bring peace where so many world-leaders have failed? Only time will tell. For now, the Center will continue to add to the thousands of friendships it has already forged between children who started out worlds apart, regardless of the political situation. Dr. Naismith would be proud.