Opening photo: Veteran National Basketball Association player Sam Vincent hosts week one of the Championship Principles Challenge, a virtual nine-week online basketball program for high school students from both Israel and Bahrain. Photo by U.S. Embassy Manama
By Haynes Mahoney and Linda McMullen
Promoting peace, teaching young people lasting life skills, and conducting effective outreach despite the COVID-19 pandemic were tall orders for Embassy Manama and National Basketball Association (NBA) veteran Sam Vincent. However, public engagement was critically important to support the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations among Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, September 2020. Vincent, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ Sports Diplomacy Division, and Manama’s public affairs section (PAS) worked together to implement the Championship Principles Challenge, an online basketball clinic, from February to April 2021. This innovative program promoted the peace-building spirit of the Accords through virtual, but meaningful, people-to-people connections, with high school students from both Israel and Bahrain participating and sharing experiences.
Manama was the “base camp” for shuttle diplomacy in late 2020 that laid the groundwork for the historic breakthrough in normalizing Bahrain’s relations with Israel. Embassy Manama supported a series of high-level U.S. visits leading up to the historic landing of an El Al jet in Manama. Nevertheless, among the Bahraini people, skepticism was rife—Bahraini contacts privately shared their concerns with the mission and Bahrainis’ publicly expressed uncertainty on social media, having never considered Israel as a potential partner before. Post realized the formal peace would need to address historic concerns among the signatories to the Abraham Accords to nurture people-to-people relationships.
Fortunately, Bahrain has a long and distinguished tradition of tolerance and coexistence; the Bahrainis are justly proud of their mosques, churches, Buddhist temples, and synagogues. Vincent, a Manama Bahrain Basketball League head coach from 2014 to 2016, understood Bahrain’s history and its people. Drawing on his international career as a coach in Greece, the Netherlands, Nigeria, and the United States—as well as his work with the Bahraini national team—Vincent had already designed and carried out a summer basketball workshop for Bahraini youth that provided participants with basketball skills as well as soft skills. Vincent had been due for a return visit to Manama when the pandemic struck, but that did not stop him or PAS Manama. Together, they determined that a virtual workshop was not only possible but also afforded a golden opportunity to unite youth from across the region in the spirit of the Accords.
PAS Manama worked with Vincent and the Sports Diplomacy Division to recruit participants who participated in weekly online workshops, which Vincent led from his home in Orlando, Fla. Each day kicked off with physical drills that the participants could perform at home. Then, drawing on guests like Mfon Sunday Udoka (a Nigerian-American former professional basketball player and assistant coach of the Nigerian women’s national basketball team), Vincent challenged participants to develop life skills. Vincent’s workshops skillfully blended basketball with a focus on character, and the qualities that make not only great athletes but successful human beings.
The online basketball workshops progressed through three stages: “Fuel,” which included the power of passion, preparation, and driven-ness; “Take Off,” which covered work ethic, the competitive spirit, and communication; and “Elevation,” which focused on confidence, respect, and appreciation. The program devoted one week to each of these qualities, allowing the participants to examine these qualities in their own lives and to share them with each other. Vincent kicked off conversations by drawing on his own experiences, playing with legendary athletes like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic and social distancing, Vincent’s nine-week workshop engaged participants. The regional audience included 216 high school participants from across the Gulf region, including 24 Israelis and 32 Bahrainis.
“Sharing my NBA experiences with top coaches and players with an international audience of coaches, players, and administrators has been great,” said Vincent.
For Mission Manama, this program was a golden opportunity to promote U.S. foreign policy and important new people-to-people connections in the region.
Haynes Mahoney was the acting public affairs officer, and Linda McMullen is the public affairs officer in the public affairs section at Embassy Manama.