Ex-NBA star spreads message of peace

Former Chicago Bull BJ Armstrong plays ball with Israeli and Palestinian kids in Jerusalem.

bj armstrong 224.88 (photo credit: Nir Keidar/Courtesy)
bj armstrong 224.88
(photo credit: Nir Keidar/Courtesy)
For former NBA all-star BJ Armstrong and New York Mets General Manager Omar Minaya, Monday was no ordinary day at the office. Both arrived in Israel as part of a peace mission organized by the Peres Center for Peace, and joined in a basketball training session for Israeli and Palestinian boys at the Rene Cassin High School in Jerusalem. The delegation, which will be in Israel for the remainder of the week focusing on joint athletic activities for youth throughout the country, was spearheaded by sports agent Arn Tellem, a renowned figure in North American sporting culture, who is involved in various Jewish causes around the world. Monday's event was run as part of the Peres Center's Twinned Peace Sports Schools project and more than 100 boys, about half Israeli and half Palestinian, couldn't wait to get on the court with Armstrong, a three-time NBA champion with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, and show him their moves. One child excitedly told Armstrong: "I love to watch [NBA stars] Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade and Michael Jordan. I know that you know him, Mr. Armstrong, and hope that you can give me tips on how to become a very good basketball player like them" "Practice, practice, practice", responded a laughing Armstrong, who acted in a friendly manner to the youngsters even after a long flight and spent time trading jokes with some of the children who shyly approached him. Asked about what it meant to him to be in Israel, Armstrong exclaimed: "It's wonderful… it's a blessing to be here and take part in the activities we're going to be participating in, to be given a chance to help these kids." Armstrong said he believed that sport is a powerful tool for bringing people from different backgrounds together and for providing a common platform for contact and interaction. "I think the main issue is bringing about peace, that's what this is all about," he told The Jerusalem Post, "It's a matter of having different mentalities and bringing them together. Teamwork is a big part of that - that is what the terms 'cooperation' and 'collaboration' really mean." Turning away for a minute to slap a kid five and to demonstrate his left-handed lay-up technique to another child, Armstrong continued, "I think we've all been a witness to sports bringing people from all backgrounds together. "In this case, it's an opportunity to accept change in a way that we haven't explored thusfar. Change takes time; right now I think [peace] is the recognized goal and we are moving in the right direction. I feel proud that I can be an advocate of such a goal." Minaya, baseball's first Hispanic General Manager, was eager to take part in a number of on-court team drills with the teams and also felt privileged to be able to have a role in such an important undertaking. "It's my first time in Israel and it's wonderful to be here," he said, "It's beautiful to see this and the potential dream of peace here in Israel, being around the kids today. It's exciting and feels good to be a part of." His personal message to the joint Israeli-Palestinian group of students involved in this pioneer project for peace was that, "being the first at anything, you're able to be the one to give hope to others that they can do anything they want to in life by working hard. "It's about being fortunate enough to get the opportunity and to be able to open the doors for other to follow." The Twinned Peace Sports venture, which was launched in 2002 with a mere 70 participants on each side, currently reaches some 1,600 Palestinian and Israeli youth from disadvantaged and peripheral communities and touches the lives of thousands more secondary and indirect beneficiaries. Speaking of his involvement in the program, one of the young players from Jericho explained: "[it] has opened the door for me to new relationships both on and off the basketball court. I now have lots of Israeli friends who I play with and speak to every day." Asked about the influence of sports personalities on today's children who look at them as heroes, Armstrong said: "I think the heroes are the people working with these kids every day. "You know sports figures are really admired throughout the world in whatever sport they may play. But the heroes are the everyday influences - you know, the mothers, the fathers, the teachers and coaches that motivate and teach them all the time. Those are the real heroes." The still baby-faced 40 year old former point guard spoke optimistically about the future for the region. "Change is in the air and it's very positive and encouraging when you see activities like today and Israeli and Palestinian kids going out and playing and cooperating with one another - something that certainly was not the case a few years ago." On Wednesday, Armstrong will be giving a basketball clinic to Israeli and Palestinian girls in Kiryat Gat.