An American coach is trying to lead Palestine to the Olympics – and it's all even crazier than you think

An American coach is trying to lead Palestine to the Olympics – and it's all even crazier than you think

International

An American coach is trying to lead Palestine to the Olympics – and it's all even crazier than you think

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Palestine, a small and troubled country with no basketball structure or tradition, is currently competing with mighty Asian powers like China, Iran and Philippines for a spot in next year’s Olympics at the FIBA Asia tournament. The Palestinians are trying to get it done under American coach Jerry Steele, a Phoenix-based Christian minister (and father of ESPN reporter Samantha Ponder) who’s totally at odds with the country’s basketball federation and is having impressive success in spite of all the obstacles with three wins in the first five games of the competition – including one vs. the Filipinos.

Steele talked with HoopsHype about the craziness and the rewards that comes with coaching this overachieving group of players.

How in the world do you beat Andray Blatche’s Philippines? You couldn’t possibly see that coming.

Jerry Steele: You are correct that nobody saw that coming. I knew we would put up a fight because we have been doing that to each other in practice the last couple of weeks. However, that practice was without a couple of our better players.

I think what happened is that I tweaked the rotations of a typical 2-3 zone a little so that they are readily recognizable. We were within five points at half time using strictly our man defense. We decided to take a look at our zone in the second half and I think it was a little surprising for Andray’s group. Then, as is usually the case, if the opponent has a cold night from three-point land it makes the coach who went to a zone look smart. Essentially that’s what happened. But more important is that our young guys bought in and played really hard as they learned how not to quit.

How was the locker room afterwards?

JS: You know, I have never won the lottery or any big prize of chance but I’ve heard that often the winner simply doesn’t believe what just happened when they are first told they won.

This game was a little like that. The team celebrated on the floor immediately at the buzzer but in the locker room it was like the reality of what they had done just overwhelmed them in waves. It was fun to watch. My job was to congratulate them, tell them they had done very well and then remind them that if they enjoyed the experience it will only come with continued work.

It’s hard to explain, but these young men have been told all of their lives that they can’t be like the rest of the world. Their government, their schools and even their elders in their families constantly remind them that they are an occupied people; that Israel keeps them from being able to do anything significant and that their main purpose in life is to get back at Israel.

We came in without any political agenda at all. There are errors and wrong doing on both sides of that geopolitical debate. What we wanted these young men to focus on was the question: “What are you going to do with what you have?”

Our effort has been to get their eyes off of what everyone says they can’t do and get busy making something of what they can do. They have a couple of basketball courts, some basketballs and, at least after we came, someone willing to teach them to play.

They’ve never been challenged like that so it was all new and they struggled to get the concept, especially when the directors of their Basketball Federation and their club management didn’t understand it or see its benefit at all.

So you can see, to find themselves in the Asia Championship and then beating the vaunted Philippines team was just a little more than winning a game. It was a message to themselves that maybe they can do something with what they have.

Obvious question: How do you end up coaching Palestine?

JS: We’ve been operating an urban youth ministry called “M.A.D. House” in Phoenix for over 35 years. Our primary tool of teaching is basketball and some football. The investment has been consistent and has helped young men learn to be responsible, go to college, marry responsible young women and flourish as teachers, school administrators, attorneys, businessmen, federal law enforcement officers, pastors of churches and otherwise strong leaders of their families.

About eight years ago some people in Palestine learned of our program and its history. They invited us to come and see if our work would help their young people in that very different culture.

We went to check it out. It seemed to fit. We started by simply giving ourselves away by teaching whoever was interested in how to play basketball. We were in the public schools, private schools, refugee camps and all the sports clubs.

Their basketball federation learned of who we are and what our reputation was for teaching basketball. Essentially they begged us to coach their National Team. Then, two years ago we entered a contract with them to give leadership to their National Team program for two years. We do it free of charge but they had to give us the right to do all the training and all the selecting of the teams. We are now finishing that two-year agreement.

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How crazy is to coach the Palestinian National Team?

JS: Trust me, there is no crazier coaching job than this.

I’ll try to be concise but it’s difficult. Palestine has basketball leagues operated and controlled by their basketball federation. Their federation is made up of five people who are all political appointees to the position. In Palestine, having an official title is a big deal and is more important that what you do with the position you have been given.

These federation members are, at best, basketball fans. They know nothing about what it takes to play; they know nothing about what it takes to coach; they know nothing about how to operate a program and certainly know nothing about how to develop basketball.

Their top league, which they call the Super League is anything but super. Their games have a distinct resemblance to early Saturday morning pickup games among the old guys who used to play at the YMCA. Except that the guys at the “Y” at least have an idea of how to move like basketball players.

The Federation has done nothing to help. They fight against every training advancement we try to implement. They don’t know what we are trying to do, but they are not about to admit that they don’t know what they are doing or that they need help. That would be disastrous for them.

They have lied about us in their local media and threatened any player who works out with us with permanent exclusion from all federation-sanctioned basketball.

They let us choose a National Team but they give us no practice time, little to no access to a gym and no opportunity to prepare appropriately for any international tournaments.

We went to work finding players for the National Team and training young players who were already available in the fundamentals of the game. All the federation did was ask us why we didn’t chose their 30-plus year-old stars from their Super League.

They sent us to tournaments at the last second, didn’t provide approved uniforms for us and still expected us to win. Then when we did win, they had their handpicked journalist write about what great work they did in spite of the coaching to produce a successful team.

After we helped them win a second-place trophy in an international tournament (they had never won any trophy prior to that) they came home and refused to give us access to players or training time.

They came to me to help with some problems with FIBA and player eligibility. Being an attorney, the first thing I asked them was “What do the rules say?” They didn’t know. I asked if they had a copy of the rules. “No”. “Have you ever read the rules?” “No”. “We thought maybe you could find them on the Internet”.

I got busy and did all the homework and produce a 130-page document with life stories and citizenship and birth documents for players that were available to us. I worked with FIBA to get those players eligible to play for Palestine. They showed up for the tournament last spring and we won a berth in our current tournament.

Again, the federation took all the credit and told the media that they had found all the players and that they had an in with FIBA now so that they could get anyone they wanted eligible to play for them. That was certainly news to FIBA and me.

We got our berth in this tournament and the Federation met with us and promised a summer full of training camps and warmup tournaments/friendly games prior to this championship. None of what they promised was done.

In the final analysis, one of the players, Sani Sakakini, one of my assistants and I did whatever planning their was. Sani arranged for a place for us to practice in Jordan. He also arranged for a couple of friendly games with the Jordanian National team while we were there.

We made our way to China for a four-team tournament we had been invited to. The federation did nothing to get us properly registered for that tournament, so I had to do all of that when we arrived on site in China after apologizing profusely to the tournament hosts.

Then after the tournament, nothing had been arranged for our continued training in China. I had to do that with the gracious help of the local tournament organizers. We arranged for everything –  including hotels, practice facilities, transportation and even borrowing some basketballs to us. The federation did nothing.

However, the federation did eventually show up in China along with their paid journalist, who made daily reports about what a great job the federation was doing.

Now, understand that I am trying to instill in these young men concepts of truthfulness and integrity. We’re trying to learn the value of hard work and delayed gratification. And all the time we are doing this training, they are threatened and afraid to tell anyone the truth about the way their federation has treated them and this opportunity.

When we got to this tournament, they told the players that they could not afford to pay for their laundry. They instructed them to do their own laundry in their hotel rooms. This is while the players are still practicing twice a day and going through shirts/shorts/socks like crazy.

Mind you, the federation can’t help with laundry for the guys doing all the work, but they pay for everything for their journalist and they incur $3,000 worth of fines from FIBA for being late with mandatory filings (all of which I had told them about and instructed them how to do for weeks before the filings were due).

Crazy? I haven’t even begun to tell you how they mistreat their own young people just to maintain their own position of power. The president of the federation has a nickname with the team. His nickname is Flash. They call him that because all he does as President is come to games and events and get his picture taken.

Yes, this is the craziest coaching job I have ever heard of.

This is the absolute truth: The national team was selected by the federation on the basis of which players they thought they would like to take a vacation with and based on which clubs they owed a favor to. That was the structure.

In which way is this so rewarding that you keep doing it? Would you keep doing it under these conditions in the future?

JS: If it was just about coaching basketball, there is plenty of that to be done in our program in Phoenix. I don’t need to take on more headaches just to coach young men. But it seemed to our Christian organization that Palestine was a door that was opened to us, not because there was something special about us but because there is something special about the God we serve and he opened doors that no other group of any kind had ever been able to penetrate before.

The rewarding part of the work is knowing that we are being obedient to the God who demonstrated his love for us by sending his son, Jesus, to die for us while we were his enemies and going our own way. To be invited by him to participate in his work is the real reward.

Now, as to the future… I don’t see us continuing to battle against the very people we are trying to help. When the leadership of Palestinian basketball makes it very clear that they don’t want our help and that they want to continue to function in their own heavy-handed way of controlling and abusing the young people by failing to care or serve, then there’s not much we can do.

We will still have a presence in Palestine but it will be on our own court, which we are attempting to build. There, because of the reputation we have built of loving the young people and being willing to teach them, we should be able to continue our work without having to interact with the basketball federation. Although, you should know that the basketball federation in the past has promised to ban any player who trains with us – their own National Team coaches. Don’t ask me for the logic, there is none.

How many of the players actually live in Palestine?

JS: Nine of our players live full-time in Palestine. We bring in two from Canada and one from Minnesota. Palestine is unique. Its history of conflict has made it a place where families historically leave for the protection of their children. As a result there are pockets of Palestinians all over the world. They are refugees but fortunately for us, those who flee to the U.S. and Canada get the privilege of some good basketball training. As a result, when we get them with us, it shortens the learning curve for the players still living in Palestine.

How are the living conditions for Palestinian-based players?

JS: The guys in Palestine generally have an OK place to live. Maybe even one of them has a car on occasion. Several are college students who go to college because that is what you do after high school. They already know there are no jobs for them when they graduate.

Some of them have jobs. Some of those quit their jobs to be in this tournament (and pay for their own laundry).

Some of the guys in college were forced to decide whether to play with us or go to college this semester. So they are here knowing they have set their college back a semester.

Those from North America… Had they ever been in Palestine before?

JS: One of the Canadians had never been. Two of the guys come from Gaza. The bottom line here is that their families left from fear and nothing has changed significantly to make them feel any different about the situation that caused them to flee.

FIBA is not interested in allowing mercenary players to claim citizenship in a country just to be able to play for their National Team. That is not what we have. Our guys, except for one, speak Arabic and they are all genuinely Palestinian although living where they were taken during the armed conflict that was going on when they were born.

Tell us about Sakakini. How can a player that good appear in a country with no basketball structure or tradition?

JS: Purely on his own determination and willpower. He decided early on that he wanted to be a professional basketball player. So he worked on his own, went to college in Jordan where he got some better training, found personal trainers as best he could and then got opportunities to play in other countries. He did it on his own. And, yes, believe it or not, he has been opposed by the Palestinian federation who tried to exert its rights to him and ruin a contract he had to play in Lebanon. He has easily done more basketball and administrative work for Palestinian basketball than the federation has since its existence. That makes it more fun for me to see him get to reap some of the rewards of his hard work for his basketball friends, even though the federation takes all the credit. We know the truth and it’s fun to see him enjoy this big stage.

Do you think your guys would take a deal to play in Israel if there was one on the table?

JS: In the past, if I wanted a Palestinian player and the federation even thought that he had played in Israel, they rejected him and said it was “impossible” for him to play for Palestine. I knew their statement was based on their own prejudices so I went to work and got two players who are every bit Palestinian but who live in Israel (Area C) under the Oslo Accords. They have played in the Israeli leagues because there is no Palestinian club anywhere near where they live. I selected them because they at least had received some basic fundamental training in the Israeli leagues and were ahead of our Palestinian residents in that regard.

Because I insisted that I have the players and had to threaten the federation that if I did not get them on the team I would not coach, they capitulated and now one of those players is with us here.

Would other Palestinian residents play in the Israeli league? Most probably not. But some of our players would because they are fed up with the ridiculousness of the Palestinian federation and they want to learn to be better players.

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Is there a fluid relationship between the players that deal with the reality of everyday life in Palestine and those living abroad?

JS: We talked in our team meeting (Saturday) about how blessed the guys who live in Canada and the U.S. are compared to all the guys from Palestine homes. The guys from the other countries agreed that it was a privilege for them to come and play with the guys who live in Palestine who have a more difficult life. They expressed appreciation for the opportunity to join the guys from Palestine and the guys from Palestine welcome their experience and abilities. It is a mutual learning experience without conflict.

How’s the mentality of a Palestinian player?

JS: Let me put it this way: They have nothing in their lives or culture to compare the kind of long-range planning and the level of work that it takes to become a top-level basketball player.

In Palestine, sports are just recreation to be enjoyed when you feel like it. They know nothing of commitment, perseverance or delayed gratification. Much like the urban kids we work with in Phoenix, next week is a long ways away and next month is an eternity. Next year doesn’t even exist.

This team of guys is getting to learn about doing the work before reaping the rewards. It is a slow process and a painful one.

Example: We practiced hard with some of the players for about 10 days. Two practices a day. Their bodies couldn’t take it even if they wanted to.

Then after arriving here, I had two players who were late for a bus to practice one day. They missed practice and I asked them why. They said we were tired from the work the day before. I didn’t get upset, I just calmly told them that they would not be joining us at the game the next night. They would be staying at the hotel.

They missed the Philippines game. Lesson learned by every player. The two offenders, thanked me for the lesson the next day and have been early ever since.

They just need some leadership and direction. It’s a privilege to be able to add to their lives in this way.

You’ve worked both in Israel and Palestine. What’s your take on the plight of the Palestinian people and the overall situation in the area?

JS: We coach basketball on both sides of the wall. We also coach American football in Jerusalem. In the football league, we have teams with both Israeli and Palestinian young men playing together on the same teams. Interesting dynamic as each season progresses but it is really fun to watch.

I’m not here to make any political statement or take sides in the politics at all. I can tell you a couple of things… There are good things and bad things on both sides of the wall. There are things the Palestinians have done well and things they shouldn’t be doing at all. There are things the Israelis have done well and things they should not be doing.

The Palestinians have to put up with not having complete freedom of movement in Israel although they can and do still travel the world by flying out of Jordan. There are places the Israelis can’t go because of danger and fear. The Israelis live pretty paranoid lives, but seem to manage reasonably well.

Most importantly, I can tell you that there are good people on both sides of the wall who just want to live in peace, have an opportunity to work and raise their families and enjoy life together. They would be happy to do it with Israeli and Palestinian neighbors if the antagonists on both side would allow it.

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