By Stuart Kaufman
---- — Newburyport native Kristen Degou always felt that she’d be doing something related to basketball for a profession. Little did she know that, two years after her graduation from Keene State University, her love for the sport would send her to Durban, South Africa.
“When I was at Keene State, I saw my future in the sport. That’s what made me work so hard,” said Degou, a 2006 Newburyport High alumna who finished her Owl career sixth in all-time scoring with 1,300 points. “In basketball, you can see your hard work pay off every day, and I knew I was responsible for my own success on the court. Now I’m trying to teach kids the same thing.”
Although she enjoyed her two years following graduation serving as junior varsity coach at Georgetown High, Degou wanted something more rewarding. She found that in PeacePlayers International (PPI).
Founded in 2001, PPI is a nonprofit organization that brings children from communities in conflict together to play basketball. Its coaches and mentors work year-round to unite, educate and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world. PeacePlayers has programs in four locations: Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus and South Africa.
Although she had a few trepidations, Degou was up for the challenge.
“It’s a two-year commitment, so that’s a long time. But that was the only drawback,” she said. “Everything else, I was thrilled about. The opportunity sounded so amazing.”
Degou began her first-year fellowship with the program in February of 2012 and recently returned to Durban to complete her second year.
“Kristen is a very analytical person who dissects everything before she does it, so I thought it was a little bit out of her realm,” said Keene State coach Keith Boucher. “I didn’t know she would branch out that much, but I thought it would be a very positive experience for her.”
According to Degou, PPI has three programs in South Africa — a primary program for students in grades 6 and 7, a more-in depth leadership development program for students in grades 8 to 12 and a professional development program where players who have come up through the ranks can be elevated to coaching and mentor positions. One of the main goals of the program is to develop leaders.
“Basketball is the perfect tool to teach things like self-discipline, teamwork and leadership,” said Degou. “We try to harness the power of sports to do that.”
“There’s not a lot of employment and educational opportunities in South Africa, so we try to let the kids have a vision for the future,” Degou said. “Basketball gives them an opportunity to excel in something in life and hopefully get them on the right path.”
Degou, who is in charge of PPI’s leadership-development program, doesn’t do a lot of hands-on coaching, concentrating instead on mentoring the older coaches to develop their skills to teach basketball correctly. Because the skill level varies significantly among the young players, Degou says the coaches keep instruction simple.
A made basket or lay-up is reason for a smile and applause. Drills are constantly being related to life.
“We might say to a player, ‘If the basketball hoop is your goal, who do the defenders represent in your life?’” Degou said. “We want them to make an analogy between the game and life.”
Lessons are also taught off the court. Life-skills education is a part of the curriculum, touching on such subjects as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, gender issues and the threat of HIV/AIDS.
Soccer and rugby are the sport staples in the country, but basketball is starting to make inroads.
“I think it’s growing,” said Degou. “They just started showing NBA games on South African TV, so people are starting to see it more and read about it.”
Degou, who lives in a modest garden cottage, has adapted well to living abroad.
“There are grocery stores, movie theaters and a mall, so it wasn’t a total culture shock,” she said. “But the culture is more laid back. Everything moves a little bit slower, and that’s something I’ve had to adapt to.
“Any time you can go out of your comfort zone and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially people who don’t have as much as you, is extremely eye-opening,” Degou said. “The people over there believe in the South African humanist philosophy of Ubuntu, which the Boston Celtics used when they won their championship in 2008, focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other.”