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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2008

Street players give hoops diplomacy a shot

Peacemaking aspirant sees sport as way to form global ties

Staff writer

On one sunny Sunday afternoon this spring, dozens of people of various ages and nationalities converged on the basketball courts at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. Juking, dunking, shooting and scoring, they played with grit as their competitive juices flowed.

News photo
Got game?: Basketball players, including members of nonprofit organization g3, take the court at Shinjuku Sports Center in Tokyo on June 30. MASAMI ITO PHOTO

But the players weren't there just for a casual pickup game. Many were helping out Ballers in Beijing, a sportswear donation project organized by Good Global Games (g3), a nonprofit organization based in Tokyo.

Founded by International Christian University student Jason Hutson in April, g3 is run by students, educators and artists interested in promoting cross-cultural youth outreach programs.

Ballers in Beijing is the group's first activity. It allows street players to get together and donate used or new clothing to China and join in cultural and language exchange projects.

"G3 is looking for the emergence of a new kind of baller for social responsibility, and it all starts with this year leading up to the Olympics in the basketball boom capital, Beijing," Hutson, 31, said.

Hutson, an American working to earn a master's degree in peace studies at ICU in Mitaka, western Tokyo, said the inspiration for g3 came from the "ever-growing basketball boom in China," where an estimated 300 million people play the game.

"I felt that if youth in Japan and China had the same dream to play in the NBA — and the same love for the game of basketball — they could learn to interact with each other through fun, sports-based activities," Hutson said.

Hutson, who is 194 cm tall, has been playing basketball for a long time. He started at age 5 and continued to play through junior high, high school and university.

Hutson said he views basketball as an ideal sport.

"The golden rule of street ball is this — anyone can play, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, skill level, height and weight," he said.

The recycling project started out as a monthly event but eventually grew into a weekly activity, with players gathering at outdoor courts in Yoyogi and Komazawa in Tokyo or indoor courts at Shinjuku Sports Center to play, donate clothes and take part in Chinese lessons.

By the end of July, g3 had about 50 volunteers and had collected 400 items of clothing.

Another major part of g3's plan was to visit Beijing during the Olympic Games to deliver the donated clothes and play street ball with players in China. Hutson initially planned on taking a group of four to seven youths, but a shortage of corporate goodwill cut his plans short.

News photo
Streetwise: Yuki Sato (left), a member of Ballers of Beijing, hangs out at Yoyogi Park in Tokyo in April while another member of the group holds sportswear donated for a recycling project. COURTESY OF G3

"It was going to be something like an all-star team of street-ballers, and we would represent Japan as 'youth sports ambassadors' at the Olympics in Beijing," he said.

Hutson e-mailed funding requests to various organizations and companies, but none went beyond an e-mail exchange or two.

"I was a little discouraged by the lack of support and sponsorship in the beginning, but my close friends and family stayed behind me, and a few professors at International Christian University were really supportive throughout the whole process," said Hutson, who is also a Rotary World Peace Scholar. "The lack of support made things difficult for our recycle project and Olympic trip mainly in terms of promotion and visibility."

In the end, Hutson was only able to scrape up enough money to have two members to Beijing accompany him.

But Hutson said that didn't matter, because "real street ball is playing with anyone, whether you are 10 people or three people, whether you know them or not."

"It's not a 'package tour' sort of trip that we are going on here. It's the real thing," Hutson said. "We need to go there with the mind-set that we are going to reach out and meet new people, through the game we love to play. It just takes a little courage."

One of the young men Hutson is taking with him is Yuki Sato, a 15-year old high school student from Tokyo. Sato, whose mother is Japanese and father is Australian, is fluent in Japanese and English and also speaks a bit of Chinese because he lived in Shanghai for a couple of years.

The Ballers in Beijing project "is a new type of basketball," Sato said. "It's not basketball to win. It's basketball to make friends."

Sato heard about the recycling project after meeting Hutson by chance this spring at a basketball court in Yoyogi. Having been a basketball player since elementary school, Sato quickly became one of the key members, bringing in T-shirts and headbands, playing ball and helping out with Chinese-Japanese language exchange.

"Basketball is my life," Sato said. "My dream is to play in the NBA, or anywhere as a pro."

Hutson left for Beijing at the end of July to iron out the details of their stay two weeks before the youth ambassadors' arrival.

He has already met and played with members of a local street ball team called CL Smooth Crew.

The grassroots-style was definitely not easy for Hutson, but he said his organization is expanding gradually. G3's next overseas project after Beijing is the Philippines, where the group plans to participate in building houses with Habitat for Humanity Japan, an NPO that provides housing to low income households.

"With young Japanese people struggling to find their career path, g3 provides community service experience for these individuals, and hopefully, in effect, this serves to help Japan (better) deal with global concerns such as poverty, climate change and HIV," Hutson said.

"On the one hand, we are helping young people develop leadership skills here at home, and at the same time, we are addressing global issues across borders."

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