Basketball as a Vehicle for Change: An interview with Mark Crandall, Founder of Hoops 4 Hope
Amidst a growing recognition of sport as a unifying force — no matter where in the world it’s played — CAF America is dedicating the month of April to highlighting the work of our donors and partners who use sports to promote tolerance, accountability and respect. In a recent blog post, a story of reconciliation took the unlikely form of cricket in Rwanda, where the sport acts as both a means to cope with the crippling history of the 1994 genocide, and as a space for unification where all players are Rwandan and are not separated by ethnicity.
As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said, “sport promotes health and well-being. It fosters tolerance, mutual understanding and peace … It empowers, inspires, and unites”. These messages are at the very core of Hoops 4 Hope (H4H), an organization that uses basketball to convey these same lessons and sentiments, and is the focus of the following interview with its founder, Mark Crandall.
We covered a lot of ground, it was truly inspiring as this attitude, this capacity for sports – of any kind – to be an avenue for building communities, healing and empowering took shape as our conversation unfolded.
Here is how Hoops 4 Hope and basketball shape lives in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
CAFA: Mark, you founded Hoops 4 Hope in 1995, but your journey to provide African youth with greater opportunities through sport began years before that. Tell us a little about your personal experiences with education and athletics and how that shaped your vision for Hoops 4 Hope?
MC: Sports were always part of my life. As a young player, basketball had – what felt like – a natural place in my schedule; it was a source of joy and hard work, discipline and inspiration. Later on, when I found myself to be a foreigner above all, basketball was there to ground me. As a teenager participating in an exchange program in Zimbabwe, basketball was my way to forge friendships, learn the local culture, and maintain my focus.
While I always knew how important basketball was for me, what I came to realize later on is that sport doesn’t just happen. Sports, like many other community activities, only take place when volunteers provided the support structure. I grew up in a small town in the Hamptons, Long Island, NY in an “all hands on deck” community, so I had the opportunity to witness and take an active part in making basketball happen.
However, the struggles are not always the same. My initial eye-opening experience was traveling with my parents throughout the US and witnessing first hand the challenges faced by a number of American communities. What I learned in Zimbabwe only strengthened my conviction: we often take the building blocks of the sport for granted. While for some, especially in America, basketball feels within reach if they have skill, speed and a great jump shot, others need safe shoes, a court or at least a ball and a hoop. Nonetheless, I also came to realize, that whether on a court or not, basketball has the power to bring people together and often times can make a significant difference in people’s life.
CAFA: Hoops 4 Hope, and its sister organization Soccer 4 Hope, both aspire to provide children and young adults with a safe space to engage in athletic activity, but it goes beyond just that. How do you see sport as a vehicle for positive change in these young people’s lives, even off the court?
MC: I am a strong believer in the idea of who you are on the court is who you are off the court. Basketball starts with showing up; the players learn the skill of time management while developing a respect for others’ time, understand that people rely on them, and thus become more and more accountable. The coach of course has a key role in forming the players and not only. Coaches have the opportunity to impart knowledge about more than just the game and these lessons most often than not create a ripple effect: coach shares with player → player goes home and shares message with siblings, other family members, and friends → Siblings, other family members, and friends share with others.
H4H doesn’t exist to try to solve all problems faced by Zimbabwe, whether political or social, but it is our belief that through basketball, H4H provides children with the values and ethics necessary to navigate some of the difficulties brought upon by the country’s political climate and go out and make the changes they want to see.
CAFA: Recently, the United Nations adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals with an eye toward “ending poverty, protecting the planet, and ensuring prosperity for all.” In addition to promoting the health and well-being of individuals (SDG #3), Hoops 4 Hope also contributes to the sustainability of the communities in which it works (SDG #11). What are some of the long-term benefits experienced by communities where Hoops 4 Hope maintains a presence?
MC: As I noted earlier, while we have a solid pragmatism related to what we can achieve through H4H, we very much believe in the power of sports when it comes to strengthening communities and contributing to development. Indeed, through its very mission, H4H actively contributes to achieving goals #3 and #11 of UN’s 2030 Agenda.
Beyond H4H’s impact on these goals, our true power lies in understanding that most problems in these communities are interrelated and therefore cannot be addressed by narrowing in on a single aspect that is taken out of the context. For example, it is great to have HIV prevention education available in schools, but this will not have the desired effect if the students do not show up or are incapable of paying attention due to not eating daily.
Furthermore, we understood that a band-aid approach is not sufficient. Organizations have to become a continuous presence in the life of those they aim to affect and to have a real impact they often need to collaborate. H4H is therefore again in line with the SDG framework, as both interconnectedness and collaboration form an integral part of the values supported by the international community through the 2030 Agenda.
Concerning other specific goals, through our work focused on helping girls stay in school and supporting sociosexual education in the classroom, H4H also contributes to the accomplishment of goal #5 — attaining gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls. Finally, beyond learning the game of basketball, gaining the skills and character traits that come with it, our players are trained in using a computer and public speaking and thus have higher chances of employment. This can make a significant difference in communities where unemployment can reach up to 80%.
CAFA: You mentioned sharing and interconnectedness, these concepts are not foreign to Hoops 4 Hope’s organizational culture. Many outside of Southern Africa may not be familiar with the concept of Ubuntu (unless fans of Desmond Tutu or Doc Rivers). What is Ubuntu, and how does it help to shape Hoops 4 Hope’s mission?
MC: Indeed, while used in a slightly different sense than above here, sharing is part of survival in African communities and that leads to a more sense of interconnectivity. There is a saying that very clearly illustrates Ubuntu – sharing as a culture: “One hand cannot wash itself”.
H4H was a grassroots organization from day one and its success was almost exclusively depending on volunteers and their willingness to share time, ideas and equipment for the betterment of others. Our organization works all year around to maintain repetitive contact with the children and we rely on everyone to make this happen.
CAFA: Speaking of collaboration, Hoops 4 Hope has been a community partner for the NBA for many years. Tell us a bit about this relationship and how it influenced H4H’s work.
MC: Yes, we have a great partnership that started with a connection through the well-respected NY-based sportswriter, Mike Lupica and further strengthened through the introduction of Doc Rivers to the concept of Ubuntu by Zimbabwe’s former national coach, Coach Kita. H4H made this possible, as we provided the necessary support for Coach Kita’s travel to Boston, aiming to further develop the relationship between the NBA and H4H.
We are happy to see that the NBA has had a presence for the past 5 years in Johannesburg making live games available to viewers across Africa through satellite. Even better, the very same Coach Kita continues his activity working with the NBA in Johannesburg.
CAFA: As we’ve discussed, Hoops 4 Hope’s educational value extends beyond just learning a game. Donations of sneakers, cleats, uniforms and balls from the US and Canada to support H4H’s activities in Zimbabwe and South Africa arrive via large shipping containers. The idea of a Container Clubhouse Program emerged and would be based on using these to create youth community clubhouses where the local youth can have access to computers, books, balls, connect with peers and more. Tell us a little about your vision for this program and other future plans.
MC: We are very pleased however of how our current projects are developing, as well as with H4H partnering with the Junior NBA in Zimbabwe. Also, I should mention that a small grant from a recent summer camp facilitated the purchase of a house that we are hoping to serve as a basketball backpacker B&B. This project is important to us as it provides a new way of ensuring funding for H4H initiatives beyond our fundraising activities; we expect that it will help us cover our expenses related to WIFI, satellite, water and cover some of the needed capital improvements.