They came off the bus in front of the Verizon Center in their white SportsUnited T-shirts. They were 12 Burmese basketball players -- six girls, six boys and two coaches -- participating in a sports exchange program that started last summer in Rangoon. Their excitement grew as they sat courtside to watch a real professional basketball game -- and see the pro's warming up beforehand. It grew even more when Washington Wizards Bradley Beal and Kevin Seraphin came over to greet them and pose for photographs.
Then they experienced the unique American pastime of a classic NBA basketball game -- complete with cheerleaders, acrobats, chants, crowd applause, and overhead announcements asking people to clap, stomp, and even kiss for the Jumbotron.
Their U.S. experience didn't stop there. In Washington, our visitors attended a basketball game at DeMatha High school. They attended classes, ate lunch with American peers, and played with a coed varsity team at Walter Johnson High School. And they strapped themselves into wheelchairs to scrimmage with a wheelchair basketball team. Then they travelled to Charlotte, NC, to undergo skills training with an amateur club, watch a UNC-Charlotte game, and spend time with Rich Cho, General Manager of the Charlotte Bobcats. A Burmese American, Cho tipped off this exchange last August, when he visited Rangoon last summer as a sports envoy.
Sports have the unique ability to connect people in nonverbal ways. And our sports exchanges work to create positive learning experiences through the joy and connectivity of that experience. Our Burmese visitors engaged in sessions focused on conflict resolution and peace building. They did exercises and games that reinforced healthy competition with their counterparts, and they learned values of diversity and inclusion. And since the group represented so many parts of Burma, they learned much from each other too.
When they go home, it is our hope they'll do so with passion and energy for America, sports, and people-to-people exchanges. They may even return in the future or host Americans in their own courts -- inspired perhaps by Cho's visit.
As with all of our public diplomacy programs, we try to start conversations that continue over whole lifetimes, build networks that extend for generations, and grow relationships that enhance our ties with people from around the world. And it can all start with something as simple as a love of basketball.
Related Content: Visit SportsUnited's Facebook page to view photographs from this exchange program.