WASHINGTON — Bryan Weaver believes in basketball's ability to connect.
"Hoops really is a universal bond," he says. "Go anywhere and if there's a court and a ball, you can get a game."
Mr. Weaver founded Hoops Sagrado (Sacred Hoops), with this connecting power in mind.
The nonprofit program, which just completed its second season, provides cultural and educational exchange between young inner-city adults from Washington and Mayan Indian youths in the western highlands of Guatemala.
This year's "D.C. 8" - five staff and three young men, Clayton "Biggie" Mitchell, Antonio Dupree, and Sean Thomas - traveled to a village near Quetzaltenango to teach basketball skills to Guatemalan children. A language school in Quetzaltenango taught the gringos a bit of Spanish.
For most of their three weeks in Guatemala, the group ran a basketball camp in Xecam, a small village near Quetzaltenango, for about 100 Mayan hoops enthusiasts.
Hoops Sagrado has its roots in a trip Weaver took to Guatemala in 1996, when he came upon a game of basketball in Cantel, a village near Lake Azatlan.
"I was in this town, and there was just this distrust of white folk," he says. "I happened to stumble into one of my passions, a game of hoops. So I jumped in. Here you had a Caribbean Guatemalan kid, a few indigenous kids, and this long-haired, hippie-looking gringo. It made me realize that there really is this unique bond that exists on a basketball court."
Weaver says that the program's name, Hoops Sagrado, is linked to a native American belief that all races are linked - in order to survive, all must bond together.
And, he notes, there is definitely common ground between the North American and Guatemalan young people.
"My experience of playing ball in D.C. is pretty much with kids from fatherless households, who are surrounded by, and see, a powerful, white, rich upper class that thinks of them as nonexistent," he says. "Playing hoops with a 17-year-old black kid [in D.C.] made me think of when I was in Guatemala. The war that took place for 36 years there was essentially a race war. The kids in the village where I stayed almost all had family members killed in the war."
Coming back for more
Sean Thomas, a 22-year-old who has a brother in jail and whose mother was killed in a convenience-store robbery, returned to Central America this year after being the only non-staff member to go last year.
Mr. Thomas says he enjoyed bonding with the kids he coached. "This year was great, because it was me and my friends making a difference in the world. We got to see a new country and broaden our horizons."
And, he notes, the experience will reach a wider audience next year. "Last year, it was just me; next year, there will be more of us," he says.
One of the biggest pay-offs of Hoops Sagrado is a self-esteem boost for those who make the trip.
"I told Sean last year that you have a commodity. You are a black basketball player, and Michael Jordan is the hippest man on the planet," Weaver says. "When he [Thomas] first came down last year, the whole community wound up just checking him out. They wanted to see how good is good. He told me, 'I felt like a superstar.' "
Funding for the fledgling group has been hard to come by. But after initial disappointments, much-needed donations are starting to materialize.
The Atlanta Hawks donated 20 leather basketballs and countless T-shirts and NBA jerseys. Private fundraisers in the D.C. area helped out - and recently, Ben Cohen from Ben & Jerry's pledged a $20,000 grant.
"People have been really giving with their hearts, and have come out of the woodwork and stepped up," Weaver says.
A new court for the town
This year, Hoops Sagrado raised enough money to give Xecam a basketball court. The court also hosts the town marketplace and town meetings.
According to Weaver, the growing popularity of basketball among indigenous Guatemalans has an element of tragic irony. It's due in part to the lack of flat space needed to build soccer fields - the ongoing struggle with the Guatemalan government has pushed their villages higher into the hills.
But on the positive side, the internationalization of basketball has helped the sport reach even these far-flung communities, as was evidenced by the large and active turnout at each year's camp.
The trip helped staff member Andre Lee, a former Division I basketball star, realize how alive the native American world is in Central America.
"It was an incredible experience. I think for the younger guys, like Biggie and Antonio, it was an eye-opener," he says. "There's more to life than their neighborhood back in D.C. If they learn nothing more than that, that's cool."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society