OTISFIELD — Having fun. It’s what kids should be doing.
A group of NBA players made sure that happened Friday when they visited the Seeds of Peace camp, a program that brings together young people from conflict zones to meet their historic enemies and form relationships they can carry back to their countries in the hope of finding peaceful solutions.
It’s hard work to ask of anyone, much less teenagers, and the 12th annual Play for Peace program provided a welcome respite.
Ori, a camper from Israel who plays basketball at home, loved the visit from NBA players that included Boston Celtics rookie Marcus Smart.
“I was able to leave behind what’s happening in my country and have fun,” Ori said.
The campers weren’t the only ones enjoying themselves.
His shirt soaked, beads of sweat on his forehead, Smart was asked if he had dumped water on himself.
“Nope, they made me work hard,” he said with a smile. “I haven’t had this much fun in a long time.”
Smart, the sixth overall pick at the NBA draft in June, was joined by fellow NBA rookies Joel Embiid and Jerami Grant of the Philadelphia 76ers, second-year player Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder and former Celtic Brian Scalabrine, who was visiting the camp for the 11th time.
Their task on this day, more than teaching basketball, was to help the 182 campers – many of whom come from conflict areas in the Middle East or South Asia – remember that they are not yet adults.
“You got kids here that want to have fun,” said Smart, a 6-foot-3 guard. “They want to be around people who inspire them and have fun. And that’s why we’re here.”
The players broke into groups to teach dribbling, passing and shooting, or to sign autographs and pose for selfies and photos with the campers.
“We’re here to help the kids, support them in what they’re going through, and to just make them happy,” said Embiid, as Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Happy” played in the background.
The Seeds of Peace camp is in its 22nd year on Pleasant Lake. This year’s group includes 95 campers who are either Israeli or Palestinian. That this year’s camp has occurred in the midst of heavy fighting in the Gaza Strip has only intensified their discussions. A three-day truce brokered by Egyptian officials ended Friday morning, and the fighting resumed.
The campers were able to get away from that for at least a few hours Friday.
“It is a break from their routine, their intense dialogue discussions around their conflicts,” said Wil Smith, the associate director of Seeds of Peace. “We’ve had six days of intense discussions. Today we take a break from all that.”
The campers appreciated the players’ visit.
“It shows that we have support from people other than our politicians, that everyone from every community is interested,” said Farah, a camper from Egypt.
By participating in drills that relied on working with others, Farah said the campers could perhaps teach the NBA players something.
“I think we can show them how we can accept each other and honor each other, even with what’s happening at home,” she said. “We can just play with each other and appreciate each other as people and not just representatives of our governments and of our own beliefs.”
Scalabrine, now an analyst on Celtics’ telecasts on Comcast Sportsnet, said, “I have three children and I would hate to think they would have to grow up in a place of conflict. Kids should not have to grow up and live that way. The idea of bringing peace? I’d like to see it in my lifetime.”
He sees the players’ visit as a diversion for the campers.
“This is a chance for them to sit back,” he said. “Tomorrow they’re right back at it, trying to solve problems that 14-year-old kids shouldn’t be trying to solve.”
Sports agent Arn Tellum, who in 1969 attended Camp Powhatan on the same site as the Seeds of Peace camp, is the man who brings the NBA players to Maine. He and his wife, Nancy, are on the Seeds of Peace board of directors.
Early on, he brought veteran players to the camp. But he believes Seeds of Peace has a bigger impact on rookies, helping them become better people by seeing what these campers are going through.
“I try to expose my clients to events that are happening beyond just the United States, to show them what’s going on in the world,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for them to learn what’s happening in the Middle East and see that they can make a difference.”
For one camper, at least, they already did.
When Ori returns to Israel, he will remember a valuable lesson the players taught: “To not give up on our dreams, to continue doing what we’re doing.’