Coming together on the court

Coming together on the court

RAMAT AVIV, Israel – As the pony-tailed Polish point guard tried to dribble past a towering Chinese defender, rooters in a cacophony of languages cheered from the bleachers.

Russian, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian — they all could be heard as Poland and China battled in the women’s championship game of the second annual Friendship Games.

A member of the Lithuanian team hangs from the ring after dunking, as Russian team members watch helplessly during the Friendship Games at Tel Aviv University on June 3. Brian Hendler/JTA

Poland would go on to take the title, while Canada upended Serbia for the men’s crown.

But basketball was only part of the experience for some of the college-aged players on some 30 men’s and women’s teams from around the world who competed last week in the round-robin tournament.

"I’ve learned a lot about other people and met a wonderful crowd," said Fares Saqfalhait, ‘0, who played with a team from Jordan. "The basketball experience has also been great, with excellent coaching."

The games are the brainchild of Ed Peskowitz, co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks of the National Basketball Association. Peskowitz invested $10 million of his money to start the tournament.

The competition included breaks for traveling around Israel to see holy sites in cities such as Jerusalem and Nazareth, as well as day trips to the Dead Sea and the Galilee.

"I said, ‘Hey, we could bring together Arabs and Jews, Christians and Muslims, people of other faiths and cultures, all who have a love of basketball,’" Peskowitz said while watching a coaching session from the stands.

He said his hope was to break down stereotypes.

He hopes in future years that teams from other moderate Arab countries, including some of the Persian Gulf states and North African countries, will join the tournament.

"I know something like this is not going to change the world, but it will make a difference at a grass-roots level," Peskowitz said.

Last year’s tournament featured teams from Cyprus and Turkey, two nations with a history of violent confrontation. Representatives from Israel and a Palestinian team from the west bank town of Hebron competed this year.

"I think these games are so important because they bring players together and show there is something here other than war," said Spencer Haywood, a former NBA player who was among the guest coaches at the tournament.

As Haywood spoke, the 1980 world championship ring he won as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers sparkled.

Herb Brown, a Hawks’ assistant coach, also was on hand to tutor Israeli coaches and the student players. Brown and the other guest coaches also visited Jordan to share their knowledge.

Brown, a longtime NBA coach, is quite familiar with Israel. He coached U.S. teams in the Maccabiah Games to a gold medal and two bronze medals, and coached an Israeli-based team called the Sabras in the 1970s. He is on the board of directors of U.S. Sports for Israel.

This spring he was inducted into the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, N.Y.

At the Friendship Games, Brown said he saw that sports can help bring people together. Basketball is about teamwork, he said — only through teamwork do teams win.

"You can exchange ideas here, you can use basketball to bridge borders," Brown said, adding that playing on the court and communicating "fosters understanding."

Milan Krstic, ”, of Belgrade, who played with a college team from Serbia, had also come to the first Friendship Games.

"We had some prejudices because of the situation, we thought we would not be so relaxed," he said. "But we’ve had a great time. With all the news about Palestinians and Gaza we did not think life would be so normal here. Now we want to come back every year."

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