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During their visit to Israel, the group of former basketball players conducted basketball clinics for Israeli and Palestinian children through Peace Players International,
an international conflict resolution organization.
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At a bunker-like playground in Sderot, the American visitors shot hoops with Israeli children who are forced to play inside, behind layers of reinforced protection.

Educational Trip to Israel Produces “Net Gain” for Retired Basketball Legends

Despite their low-key demeanor, a group of Americans who recently traveled to Israel managed to turn heads everywhere they went. This unique delegation was comprised of former professional basketball players who were handpicked to participate because they are present-day community and business leaders, having achieved new heights that reflect their own physical statures.

Thirteen former National Basketball Association (NBA) and American Basketball Association (ABA) players attended the intensive learning seminar, which stretched daily from early morning until late evening and covered the complex issues of the Middle East. The program, dubbed Athlete Ambassadors for Israel, was the result of collaborative efforts involving the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) and the American Israel Education Foundation, the charitable organization affiliated with AIPAC.

A Close Look at Israel and Its Nearby Threats

Over the course of a week, the players explored in depth many facets of Israeli society and politics. They also delved into the security challenges facing the Jewish state. A number of the athlete ambassadors were surprised to learn how small Israel is, and were stunned at the close proximity of its adversaries. While overlooking Israel’s narrow waistline from atop a mountain in the Judean Hills, one player remarked that he now understood that Israel’s security concerns “are actually about survival.”

The participants were given a briefing from a strategic overlook along Israel’s northern border. Peering into Lebanon, they learned about the military capabilities of Hizballah, a terrorist group that enjoys strong support from Iran and Syria. At the opposite end of the country, they discussed the security challenges that Israel faces along its southern border with the Gaza Strip. The players met with Israelis living near the border with Gaza, who provided first-hand accounts of life under rocket fire emanating from the Hamas-controlled territory.

At a bunker-like playground in Sderot they witnessed Israeli children playing inside, behind layers of reinforced protection. “My heart went out to those kids when I saw that playground,” said trip participant Willie Burton. “No child should have to play worried about mortars falling on their heads. No child should have to worry about that anywhere in the world.”

Exploring the Holy Land and Its History

During the course of their journey, the players visited holy sites, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Western Wall and churches along the Sea of Galilee. They studied Jewish history while walking the stone streets of Jerusalem’s Old City and ascending the cliffs of Masada. They also enjoyed an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast and a traditional Shabbat dinner with a rabbi, with the walls of the Old City as a backdrop.

A visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum provided a moving lesson on the powerlessness that nearly eradicated world Jewry during the Holocaust and underscored the importance of re-establishing a Jewish state in the Biblical homeland of Israel.

“It was overwhelming to see, to have the realization of what actually took place at these concentration camps,” said Kenny Battle. Stephen Bardo added: “The glass encasement where all those shoes were from those people that died in those camps, it was a chilling thing to see... it hit you pretty hard.”

The group also managed to find time to conduct basketball clinics for Israeli and Palestinian children through Peace Players International, a widely respected international conflict resolution organization, and Ethiopian Israeli kids at a center run by the Ethiopian National Project. In impromptu conversations on the street, they were able to go beyond the headlines to learn more about the lives of ordinary Israelis.

A Multidimensional View of the Middle East

During their time in Israel, the players interacted with dozens of speakers, including senior Israeli security experts, Israeli political leaders and representatives of the Palestinian Authority. Visits with Ethiopian immigrants provided a window into the great diversity of Israeli society, while a discussion with a Palestinian journalist drew a sharp contrast between the far-ranging press freedom in Israel and the constraints placed on journalists in Palestinian areas.

A Unique Opportunity to Educate

Not only was the visit to Israel a chance for the trip’s attendees to learn, but it also provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to teach. The players testified before the Knesset’s Committee for Education, Culture and Sports, educating Israeli lawmakers about the positive role that sports can play in promoting youth education.

Several of the group members shared best practices from their own civic engagement in this arena. They also drew interesting parallels between the impact that a life under fire can have on Israeli children and the trauma often suffered by inner-city American youth who are exposed to violence on an ongoing basis. View some highlights from the testimony here.

During their travels many of the players maintained blogs and shared personal videos and postings via social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. The trip to Israel featured prominently as a major topic during the annual conference of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, which was held just a week after the seminar concluded.

Now that they have returned home, these present-day business and community leaders are uniquely positioned to share their experiences with the public and to convey the deep appreciation for the U.S.-Israel relationship that they developed during their time in the Middle East.