The UCLA women's basketball team headed “down under” for 10 days of adventure in Australia—we left excited and returned exhausted and with full hearts. There were so many reasons to be excited: travel to new lands, 5 star resort hotels, games to play with new teammates, anticipated adventures, new and old friends to spend time with, beach time, the Great Barrier Reef…it was all in front of us and well anticipated! However, looking back over this trip, the one thing that filled our hearts the most, touched the deepest and changed us all was the few hours we spent at a small school near Cairns in Queensland, northern Australia. We rolled in to the school on our bus around 9:00 in the morning, not really sure what to expect. The plan was to learn some history of Australia from the teachers there, and to spend time with the students, probably on the basketball court. All of that happened, but there was so much more to it than we expected.
As the school headmaster lead us into a classroom, the Bruins settled in to listen. He explained some Australian geography and history, and how the school started and why it existed…that some students attended who lived locally, but many came from the other side of Australia, in areas where there were no schools for them. They were indigenous young people who were living at the school as boarders. We met the “aunts and uncles” who became their family at the school. These people were from small villages that were full of poverty and hardship. As in so many other parts of the world, access to education could change their lives. Even so, they explained to us that the greatest challenges these young people faced involved more internal issues...the greatest of which they identified as: shame. They viewed themselves as second class citizens who were “less than” as people. Many of the girls would not look us in the eye. This, we were told, is not unusual.
A few of the students and their mentors led the team in “sit down dances” before we left the classroom.
There were shy smiles and then as the dances progressed...laughter all around. Dancing breaks down so many barriers! Connection was beginning to happen between our young Bruins and these young students. They had a lot more in common than they had initially thought possible. After the dancing, most of the team headed to the basketball courts to offer a clinic to the students of the school…but a few athletes stayed behind to talk with the girls who had taught us these dances. Their English was very good, which allowed for open dialogue. Our players talked about how they faced and dealt with adversity and challenges in life—the tools for enduring that they had learned…this was at the request of the leaders of the school. And then the students told their stories…and tears were shed by all. They had endured much in terms of abuse and difficulties in their short lives. Our athletes listened carefully, with compassion, and attentiveness. They listened with love in their eyes. This, we were all learning, was a powerful gift.
As the day went on many young people came in, group by group, to learn basketball from the Bruins. There were so many smiles, so much laughter, and so much connection. Sport, as well as dancing, is a great connector of lives that breaks down cultural barriers quickly. Towards the end of the time, one last group came onto the courts. This group of about 30 girls, most from Aboriginal families, came tentatively and sat along the sideline. Coach Shannon led the session which was about defensive footwork. Who would ever have thought that defensive footwork drills could be used to powerfully transform our lives!
The words in the drill were about basketball, and yet somehow not at all about basketball! Coach Shannon would say, “Are you fired up?" And the girls would respond, “Yes Coach, fired up!" Then, Coach Shannon said, "More skills..." and the response, "More fun!" The voices were growing more confident as the team pressed the girls to yell as loud as they could along with them. Coach Shannon's next call out, "Basketball..." and the response, "Gotta love it!" Then Shannon got to the one that landed, it seemed to me, way beyond the basketball court. She yelled to them, "I am..." and their response, "...a rock" Louder! Again! Over and over this series of call and response happened...louder and louder building confident assurance that indeed, we can be rocks in this life. We can be strong. Something was happening here.
I was taking pictures…my role for the day. So through the lens of the camera I could see this "something" happen. Shy eyes were lifted towards tall, dark skinned, powerful women…with an expression of wonder. "I am...a rock!" The drill finished and led to stations and skills being taught...and then water break conversations. Little by little shyness dissipated into playful smiles and laughter and hands reaching out. Long braids were held and twirled and hugs were received. It was impossible to watch without tears welling up and filling all of our eyes.
One of the boy’s Australian rule football coaches from the school was watching from the bleachers. He initiated a conversation with us, wondering who we were and why we were there. “Your presence here means the most,” he said. When we asked him about that, he began to explain that the way to break shame in the heart of a child is through loving presence. “This communicates worth…you are worth me being here with you, and I love you. That is the power of the gift you are giving these young girls.” We asked him to explain this to the team. They listened. They really listened. His words gave them words to explain what they felt inside. His words also seemed to empower them to reach out even more and be even more attentive for the rest of our time there. I’ve never been more proud of the Bruins than that day.
I can’t help but think about how this message is true for all of us. We all need loving presence that communicates value and worth. The best athletes in the world need to know they are loved, just for who they are, not for what they do or don’t do. I’m very sure that the love these young Australian girls gave our strong American women was mutually powerful for breaking bondages of shame. As is often the case, we set out to serve them and provide something for them, and we ended up receiving even more. Our hearts were moved and changed, encouraged and strengthened, by the very ones we had hoped to encourage.
It is pretty much impossible for us to do these things and not want to stay connected somehow. The plan going forward is to do exactly that! We will be using skype and social media to stay in touch and continue to build relationships. I believe there will be lifelong friendships built in the process! And I also believe there will be mutual gifts of presence and love that will help all involved to live life to its fullest, being our best selves for the sake of all who are in our lives. I know for my own heart and life…the challenge and goal is a fresh resolve to be fully present, eyes engaged, loving those right in front of me today. Thank you to all at the Djarragon College for loving and teaching us so much, so well!