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Building Bridges Through Basketball

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Before Ryan Eney, Grant Poujade, Jonathan Judy, Glenn Willis, Luke Hartsock, and Stephen Eney traveled abroad to participate in the Memory, Identity, Conflict, and Dialogue Program, they discovered some common history: all six had played on their high school basketball teams. So it’s no surprise that when asked to plan a community project for the program, they turned to basketball. 

“A couple of us had conversations about using basketball for reconciliation in South Africa,” recalls Ryan Eney. But their chance to realize the idea came sooner than expected—in Belfast, Northern Ireland. 

UW students and local youths celebrate at the conclusion of a basketball clinic in a South African township.

UW students and local youths celebrate at the conclusion of a basketball clinic in a South African township.  Media credit: Annie Hartsock

While working with Irish boys as part of another community service project, several of the students realized that a short basketball camp might bring the boys—ages 10 to 14, representing both sides of divided Northern Ireland—together in a non-partisan way. With help from the U.S. Consulate in Belfast, the UW students located a politically neutral site, found sponsors for low-income students, and made contacts with local basketball authorities. “We wanted local authorities to see that we were not trying to overwhelm their efforts, but rather support them,” says Ryan Eney. 

The result was a week of events including a clinic for 50 students, a coaching clinic for local coaches, and a visit from the Belfast Giants, the local ice hockey team, which provided tickets to an upcoming hockey game. 

“The goal was to use sports as an agent for conciliation and empowerment,” says Eney. “Our hypothesis going in was that athletics is a way to begin to establish relationships between students of different backgrounds who normally have no contact. We did find that.” 

The week ended with a reception for the basketball community in Belfast, to discuss continuing its relationship with the UW. “I think they were skeptical at first, but as we dreamed together, they loved the idea of student interns coming back to help them,” says Eney. “Two students will go back this December to work out the details and show them we are serious about this.” 

Buoyed by the success of the Belfast camp, the students were eager to offer a similar program in South Africa. Hartsock had identified contacts before arriving, which simplified the process. “We attached to Hoops for Hope, a New York group that partners with local basketball authorities so local groups can take the lead,” says Eney. The students offered ten basketball clinics in South Africa, culminating in a tournament in Cape Town. As in Belfast, they hope to send interns to Cape Town next year to continue this work. 

Back in Seattle, the UW students have organized The Basketball Project, which will coordinate “the exchange of ideas and people” from each country. “Our dream is to have coaches and students come to Seattle for a basketball and leadership camp, as an entry point to talk about more important issues of leadership and race,” says Eney. 

Ryan Eney was awarded a $3,000 Jackson Leadership Award from the Jackson School of International Studies to pursue this ongoing project.