How alley-oops and layups keep kids safe in Zimbabwe

In a nation racked with AIDS and economic turmoil, young people are flocking to basketball courts for a little relief.

Terrance Chawanda got his first taste of basketball at 11 when his older brother fashioned a wire hoop and practiced jumping over him to slam-dunk a tennis ball.

Years later, it was the images of Michael Jordan taking off like a bird from the free-throw line and Magic Johnson dishing no-look passes that hooked him.

But, at 5 feet, 8 inches, Mr. Chawanda wasn't sure he could really be a contender. "Then I saw a tape of [5-foot, 6-inch] NBA star Spud Webb when he won the dunking competition in 1992. After that I started seriously playing basketball, because I thought someone my size could play."

And today Chawanda is not only jamming alley- oops, but is also the founder and manager of an amateur team here, the City Knights.

Amid Zimbabwe's worst-ever economic crisis and President Robert Mugabe's call for mass invasions of white farms, amateur basketball leagues are thriving on makeshift courts across the country. Young men and women come three nights a week for what they say is a joyous contrast with the bleak monotony of their daily lives.

"I love the sport," beams Chawanda. "It gets you out of doing the nonsensical things, like spending the whole day drinking."

The vitality of basketball has found a ready audience in Zimbabwe, where some 60 percent of the population is unemployed, and inflation has risen 70 percent in the past year. Propelled by years of corruption, the country has fallen into economic shambles following Mr. Mugabe's decision 18 months ago to send cash and thousands of troops to help the Democratic Republic of Congo with its war.

Basketball has been around for years in this cricket and tennis crazed country, but its growing popularity with people like Chawanda reflects the power of globalization. Four years ago, South Africa launched a digital-satellite television service that is rapidly spreading through the continent. Subscriptions are too expensive for most people here, but many Zimbabweans head to taverns and hotels to watch NBA broadcasts.

The city of Bulawayo has seven teams each in the men's A and B divisions, as well as women's and under-16 boys'. Each team draws 30 to 40 players to practices. This year a national "Super League" tournament began with the top teams from Bulawayo and Harare. Players hope a national professional league isn't far off.

Besides the glamour and high-voltage antics of NBA stars on TV, many dribblers in Zimbabwe say the team comraderie is an antidote to one of Zimbabwe's deadliest problems: AIDS.

"Basketball keeps you away from ... peer pressure to drink and smoke and doing the things that cause AIDS. It brings you up healthy with a strong mind," says Fortune Sithole, part-time player and doorman at the Bulawayo Rainbow Hotel.

Charmaine Chirinda, a co-worker at the hotel is captain of the Conquerors women's team. She says it's more than a way to socialize: "It keeps the youth out of the street and out of trouble."

Her team works with the provincial Matabeleland Aids Council. At a recent tournament, she helped hand out some educational T-shirts and caps to the young crowd. "The message is protection is o.k., but just abstain," she quips.

The matches here are pretty civilized. Players are generally reserved and polite on court - with little of the trash-talking provocation you get in America. Prince Mlaudzi, one of the Knights' top players, occasionally dribbles up to a guarding opponent and asks "You want to dance?" It's probably not what you'd hear from the nose-pierced and pink-haired Dennis Rodman, but it unnerves his opponents enough to let him sprint on past.

According to Ms. Chirinda, "There are men and women players sitting together, and they discuss anything and everything.

"They are like [siblings] now, and the [men] actually protect the girls if they see her hanging with a bad guy."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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