In 1992, I went to Stern and National Basketball Players Association director Charlie Grantham and asked them to help launch Project Teamwork in post-apartheid South Africa. Project Teamwork was a program I helped start when I was at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in 1988. After evaluating it, public opinion analyst Lou Harris called it "America's most successful violence prevention program," and President Bill Clinton named it as a model program. It used athletes to train young people with conflict resolution skills with a special emphasis on conflicts based on race and gender.
In South Africa, rugby and cricket were all-white sports and soccer was almost an all-black sport. It became a goal that basketball might be an integrated sport. Stern agreed to put together a team that he would lead to go to South Africa. The team included Lenny Wilkens and Wes Unseld as coaches and Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning as players.
Project Teamwork went there in 1993 and 1994. The South African youth were dazzled by the size of the American players, who were all great with children. They took to the game right away. The NBA built several courts in the impoverished communities of Soweto and Alexandria. The players were stunned by the living conditions. Mourning told me, "If I had seen this as a boy, I would have never complained about being poor in America."
In 2001, the NBA created its Basketball Without Borders program, which annually goes to Africa and countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. Basketball Without Borders brings together the best talent from the continent and teaches basketball skills for half of the day and life skills and community service for the other half of the day. Stern wanted NBA players to understand the power of sport to bring positive social change whether you are in the United States, Africa, Europe or Asia.
The NBA is the only American league that has an office in Africa. It is situated near Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg. Stern and I were among the guests invited to Mandela's inauguration. I know being there had great significance to him personally just as it did for me.
Kathy Behrens is the NBA's executive vice president for social responsibility and player programs. NBA Cares is the largest program in pro sports that gives back to communities where each team is located. Basketball Without Borders weaves the NBA's influence globally with a focus on education, youth and family development, and health and wellness. I have participated in NBA Cares programs in Orlando, Boston, New Orleans, Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, and Dakar, Senegal. I have witnessed the impact up close. It is real. No other league has an executive vice president for social responsibility let alone the extensive programming run by the NBA and WNBA. The tapestry is vibrant.