During the weekend of February 20, John Amaechi travelled to Lithuania in his role as an NBA Ambassador. Here, he explains how the Jr. NBA program, in partnership with the Lithuanian Basketball Federation, serves as an example of how sport can get it right for young people.
Sometimes the NBA is seen as the gift that keeps on giving. People might think it’s down to money or the legacy of some great game back-in-the-day that people buy you drinks over while you tell the tale. For me, the rewards of playing sport and being a member of the NBA don’t come in the form of either of those things. Rather, it’s my role as one of the official NBA Ambassadors and the interactions created when I serve in that capacity.
NBA Ambassadors travel to various places to act as representatives of both the organisation, and the game of basketball. We are part of a collective of NBA outreach programs, including Basketball Without Borders, NBA Cares, and Jr. NBA. In many cases, we will serve on behalf of these programs, or make appearances for grassroots organisations and corporate partners.
I always worry that kids will be a little disappointed when I show up and they see they didn’t get Dikembe or Shaq in the big reveal, but my experience so far is that kids understand that playing in the NBA in and of itself is a big deal. More importantly, if you show them you want to be there, to spend time with them, to support their efforts and achievements, suddenly your minutes played and points-per-game stats pale into insignificance.
Sport is supposed to teach lots of “lessons” but people forget it teaches only what we make it teach.
I’ve just returned from a weekend trip to Lithuania to see the finals of the Jr. NBA teams there. Lithuania is a country with a population of 2.9m people, and some significant economic woes. It also has a huge passion for basketball. I watched young people in a beautiful practice facility belonging to the Lietuvos Rytas team in the capital Vilnius, playing their hearts out in their games. More than that, I watched their coaches and families support them from the sidelines as they battled it out.
Sport is supposed to teach lots of “lessons” but people forget it teaches only what we make it teach. I was struck by the jubilation of the winning team, but even more by the team who won silver. Tears streamed down their faces. Some looked inconsolable. I watched their coach and a couple of support staff pull them together to first shake hands with the winners, and then talk to them. The words from their coaches caused their faces to brighten. While they were still disappointed with the loss, they were made more resilient by their coaches’ words. This is how we make sport something special for our kids: when we can help them compete for the win with every fibre of their being and even in defeat the experience, while chastening, is still affirming.
The weekend provided an example of how well-organised sports development programs that are run by qualified, capable leadership can positively impact young people around the world.
I signed autographs and listened while the kids told me about their favourite NBA teams and players, and excitedly explained about all the great things they would do when they grow up, on and off the court. It was a truly amazing way to spend a weekend, listening to kids from another culture, with another language, connecting with their sporting heroes who are thousands of miles away.
I watch more basketball on these NBA Ambassador trips than anywhere else. In addition to the Jr. NBA games, there was a national cup competition going on over the weekend. As a special treat, our Jr. NBA final four teams were presented with their bronze and silver medals and championship rings in front of a frenzied crowd at in the Siemens Arena.
I know this will be an indelible positive memory for all the Jr. NBA participants and coaches. As for me, well this is the kind of impact of sport I can watch all day.