Barriers with Basketball
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – Weston native Mike Evans never imagined his passion for basketball would take him around the world on a peace-making mission. Now he’s planning to apply his experiences in Connecticut to address the achievement gap in local communities.
Sponsored by the Interfaith Council of Westport and Weston, Evans, 28, presented a lecture titled “Full Court Peace” late Sunday afternoon in the Community Room at St. Luke Church, 49 Turkey Hill Road North. The talk focused on Evans’ efforts to use basketball as a means of diplomacy in war-torn parts of the world. About 25 people attended the free session, which was followed by a brief reception.
Mary Attanasio, co-chairperson of the Interfaith Council, said Evans’ talk had particular relevance to her group’s work. “The Council is comprised of 15 congregations – three Catholic, three Jewish and nine Protestant,” she explained. “Mike’s efforts to enhance relations in various parts of the world, and breakthroughs in Protestant/Catholic relations, in particular, are of great interest to us.”
Basketball has always been Evans’ sport of choice. His parents, who emphasized how lucky he was to be raised in Weston, pushed him to play in underserved areas, which was “a real eye-opener,” he said. “Much of my motivation comes from my early experiences with my teammates.”
Reluctant to join the corporate world upon graduation from Hamilton College in 2005, Evans went abroad to Belfast, Northern Ireland to play semi-pro basketball. “It was the worst league in Europe, where six-foot tall white guys are allowed to play,” he joked. “When I was there, I saw the intense division between Catholic and Protestant communities. Even the sports were divided. Cricket is predominantly Protestant while Gaelic football and hurling are predominantly Catholic. Basketball was the only sport there that did not seem to have religious baggage.”
The climate inspired Evans to try an experiment. “I approached the principal at one Catholic high school and one Protestant high school, two structures separated by a 50-foot wall,” he said. “I offered to coach travel basketball in each of the schools, without letting on to either that I was dual-coaching. Soon enough, I had five 15-year-old boys from each school that had caught on to me as a mentor.”
Evans then took things up a level. “After a month of coaching, I tried to convince the two sets of boys to play on the same team together,” he said. “They said ‘absolutely not’, which was disappointing. I started looking for answers to help understand how to unite the two factions.”
Courageously, Evans, passing himself off as an American journalist doing book research about Ireland’s “troubles”, tracked down and met with Eddie Copeland, the head of the Irish Republican Army. Evans hoped Copeland could provide insights. Copeland told him basketball wasn’t going to make the kids come together and that it would take something more. It inspired Evans to offer the students a trip to the United States.
“The first time these working class boys played together was in Weston, against a well-to-do Catholic high school team,” Evans said. “The ice started to melt and we beat them by 25 points. I’ve never seen a more terrified opposing team.”
Evans and his players returned to Northern Ireland where their season continued. “We were 9-0 then suffered a loss, which seemed to undo everything,” he said. “I knew I had to get the support of the two ringleaders of our team to reverse the negative spin. Our last game was against St. Mary’s, an all-Catholic school. We won the game on a collaborative basket between these two boys.”
In celebration, the team returned to Weston for another visit, staying with local host families. Their last night was spent in New York, where they really bonded, said Evans.
The experience led Evans to found Full Court Peace in 2008, a non-profit organization with a mission of using team basketball to enhance education and build social capital around the world.
“I began rolling out a principle of sports diplomacy wherein basketball serves as a catalyst to break down barriers,” he said. “I’ve applied this since in Havana, Cuba, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.”
Evans said basketball is the only sport in Cuba not controlled by the Communist regime. He set up a youth team there in the summer of 2010. In Mexico, where over 1,000 children have been killed in drug violence since 2006, Evans set up basketball clinics. The latter took kids off the street and taught them Harlem Globetrotter-style trick shots that served to build self-confidence. Locals in both areas have since become advocates for change and are carrying on Evans’ work.
While pursuing a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at Harvard College, Evans is now turning his attention to domestic division. “I am focusing on fighting the achievement gap between students in Bridgeport, Stamford and Norwalk and those in surrounding affluent communities.”
To learn more about and help support Full Court Peace, email Michael Evans: