Accessibility links

Breaking News

Basketball: a Powerful Tool To Raise Awareness of HIV/AIDS

The world's foremost professional basketball league, the NBA, just held its annual draft and players from all over the world were selected. Stephan Bekale, who is from the African nation of Gabon, once dreamed of playing professional basketball too. But while he was playing hoops, as basketball is also known, at Pennsylvania State University both his parents died from AIDS and his priorities changed. He decided to do something for the millions of Africans suffering from the disease. So, he started “Hoops for Africa,” an HIV/AIDS awareness program that brings professional basketball players to Africa.

Stephan Bekale came to the United States in 1995 from Gabon. He was 14-years-old. He left family and friends on the west coast of Africa -- for a dream.

He wanted to play in the NBA, like his idol, Michael Jordan. "Sometimes I dreamed that he is me. Like Mike...If I could be like Mike."

A friend whom Stephan had played basketball with in Africa promised him housing in the States.

Stephen recalled his introduction to the U.S. "When I got to New York, he came to the airport and tell me that his father was dying of cancer, that he's no longer considering to have me over to his house. So he just left me at the airport and I had to find my way."

Stephan was 14-years-old, two meters tall, did not speak the language, and knew nobody. He came close to giving up his dream.

"The reason why I came to Washington was because I was trying to get the embassy to deport me. But, they didn't want to deport me, they just said, ‘No, you can't come to this country and embarrass our country.’ "

His luck began to change in Washington -- a family took him in. "They saw me on the streets, and I told them I'd like to play basketball."

They sent him to high school in Virginia where he finally got a chance to play basketball. He was a star.

In 1998 Pennsylvania State University gave him a basketball scholarship.

But his good fortune did not last.

"My freshman year in college, my dad passed away. I didn't find out until the end of my freshmen year that he was HIV positive, and it bothered me very much. And after my sophomore year, my mother also passed away and people were talking that she was also killed by AIDS."

It was a defining moment.

“I had aspirations to be a professional basketball player, but you know, at a certain point I lost that drive. I was not hungry any more. That drive was not in me anymore, so my drive was just then do something for my people for where I come from."

So, Stephan decided to start an HIV/AIDS awareness program: “Hoops4Africa.” It will fly 10 athletes, five each from the NBA and WNBA, to Kenya for a week in September to talk to schoolchildren about the deadly disease.

Chasity Melvin, of the Washington Mystics basketball team is one of the ten. "We feel like when we go over and reach out to them they'll really listen because of our status and what we do."

Stephan adds, "We are going to go to different high schools. High school in Nairobi, Naku, and Mombassa. And we're going to let the players speak to kids. Speak to kids."

"We're going to do clinics, we're going to have small basketball camps and we'll be able to go one-on-one with them, teach them little fundamentals of the game, we're also going to do nutritional classes with them," says Chasity.

Rob Nooter works for the dairy company Land O'Lakes, which has partnered with Hoops4Africa. They work with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. He says, "It brings star power to the delivery of the message on HIV/AIDS."

Stephan admits that Hoops4Africa is just one of many African AIDS awareness programs, but he thinks his has a chance to make a real difference, "I think that bringing players over there will be great for kids, because not too long ago I was in that situation over there. Ten years ago I was dreaming to come to the States. I was a little kid watching TV, watching games at two o'clock in the morning."

So, Stephan spends much of his time these days networking to raise money for Hoops4Africa, because he wants there to be many more trips to Africa.