Kanye West’s “Through the Wire” played as over 50 participants tuned into the Zoom chat. Many were children, logging on from around the world and positioned near basketball hoops or in garages. Oklahoma City Thunder forward Mike Muscala appeared on screen to hype the campers up and discuss the Orlando bubble where NBA players are currently playing. Famous basketball journalist Scoop Jackson came through to talk about the game’s power to shape lives.
“As long as you stay connected to the game, the game will take you places you can’t even imagine … and all of it starts right now,” Jackson said.
This is how PeacePlayers’ 2020 virtual summer camp began Monday. More than a basketball program, PeacePlayers uses sports to teach conflict resolution skills. Its participants are youth in divided communities, from the Middle East and Northern Ireland to Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore. In this city, where it primarily operates in the Park Heights neighborhood, it also offers career readiness and leadership development.
The Baltimore program began in 2017, with funding from Nike.
LaToya Fisher, who started as a PeacePlayers fellow in the West Bank and Israel, leads PeacePlayers Baltimore. The Maryland native is herself a product of the state’s rich basketball culture, which Showtime recently spotlighted in “Basketball Country: In the Water,” a documentary about the many world-class players that came out of Prince George’s County.
“There’s just such a strong youth presence and also coaches who are just really dedicated,” Fisher explained, adding that she competed against former WNBA star and current Duke women’s basketball head coach Kara Lawson as a youngster. “From a young age, you’re able to find quality programming throughout the years.”
Fisher said that she and colleagues have considered putting some of the program’s best players into a traveling all-star team. “There’s definitely that aspect where we’d like to be a respected basketball program,” she said.
But the goal of PeacePlayers is to cultivate future community leaders, not just athletic ones. “We want to go deep, and not necessarily wide,” Fisher said. “We’re not a basketball program that’s looking for the next LeBron. We’re looking for the next Obama.”
PeacePlayers, like a lot of camps, is going virtual. What that meant for this year’s week-long camp is that each U.S. city hosted or will host a different day of programming; Chicago held the first day, and Baltimore will hold the fourth. On Monday, Nike trainer David Carson led campers in a strength and conditioning workout.
Dancer and actress Natali Micciche conducted a lesson in popular dances from the app TikTok. Thursday promised workshops breaking down poetry and rap lyrics, as well as a session in which campers can hear from different community leaders about how to connect their passion to a productive future. And it wouldn’t be a basketball camp without recurring ball-handling tutorials.
Whether PeacePlayers retains a virtual model in the future remains to be seen.
“I’m hoping that we can find a way that everybody feels safe to get out in front of the kids,” Fisher said. “We’ve started trying to think through what that looks like.”