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Basketball Stars Bring Hope, Fun to Israeli Children

Several former National Basketball Association stars are on a goodwill tour of Israel this week. Stars like Dwight Howard, Allan Houston, and Jerome Williams are hoping to heighten awareness of the professional game and give some disadvantaged kids a good workout.

At Jerusalem's Malcha Stadium, several hundred cheering children greeted the basketball pros as they jogged into the arena. The players put the young people through several drills, including footwork, jumping, and sprints.

The clinic was part of a special program sponsored by the U.S.-based Sports Power International, an evangelical Christian organization based in Baltimore, Maryland. The players included Allan Houston, a former New York Knicks guard, who says he made the trip because of his faith.

"We've been honored to be here and show our support for not just these wonderful kids and students out here, but just for all the Israeli people that have embraced us," he said.

Houston, an assistant to the President for Basketball Operations for the Knicks, joined former Utah Jazz center Paul Grant, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and New York's Jerome Williams on the trip.

Bill Alexson is the head of Sports Power International and the founder of the NBA's chapel program. He told VOA that even a second-string NBA star would be better known worldwide than some of the stars of the U.S. National Football League or Major League Baseball.

"I take these players across the globe. We do exhibition games; we do camps, clinics, school assemblies, and urban outreaches," said Alexson. "And at all of these events, selected players will share their personal stories of how they have overcome adversity in life, how they have handled success. They will encourage young people to make right choices in life. And their talks emphasize having character, leadership, responsibility and faith."

On Wednesday, the delegation also met with Israeli President Shimon Peres. They presented the 87-year-old president with an autographed basketball. The former NBA stars will play the Israeli team Bnei Eshet in an exhibition, and will conduct a clinic at the Yemin Orde youth village outside Haifa. Yemin Orde focuses on helping at-risk youth.

The residents come from numerous countries around the world.

Bill Alexson says that his hope is that the former NBA players can help young people turn their lives around. But he added that the teenagers are not the only ones who benefit from the basketball clinics.

"And the beautiful thing is when they [the players] read a comment card that says, 'I was considering taking my life, but after listening to you talk I changed my mind,' that athlete's life is changed! And they don't look at themselves as, 'well, I used to be so-and-so, but now I'm a failure," said Alexson.

The players' trip is co-sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, a charitable arm of the pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC. But Israel is not the only place Bill Alexson says his players are planning to go. The team has also been invited to Russia, Ukraine, China, and Cuba.