Wednesday, June 15, 2005

NBA Basketball Players and Hoops4Africa Launch AIDS Campaign

Basketball stars to travel to Kenya to encourage healthy living

By Emily Harter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Hoops4Africa is sending professional basketball players to Kenya in 2005 to use the influence of American sports celebrities to deliver a vital message on AIDS prevention to African youth.

The Washington-based nongovernmental organization celebrated its partnership with professionals from the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) and Land O'Lakes, an American dairy company, at a fund-raising reception October 28 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington.

"Play Safe, Live Long. Drink Milk, Live Strong" is the message 13 men and women basketball stars will promote during their trip to Kenya in September 2005. Currently there are 26.2 million people affected with HIV in Africa, and last year 2.3 million people died from the disease, 470,000 of them children.

Hoops4Africa is the creation of Stephan Bekale, an immigrant from Gabon who played college basketball in the United States. He formed the organization after he lost both his parents to AIDS, enlisting support from more than 200 NBA and WNBA players along with several businesses in the Washington area.

During the trip to Kenya, Hoops4Africa and the team of American basketball players will visit primary and secondary schools to educate adolescents because "the highest incidence of AIDS is between the ages of 15 and 26," according to Kristin Penn, director of the Land O'Lakes International Development Division.

Land O'Lakes, a leading U.S. food and agricultural cooperative, has been involved in economic development for more than 20 years. It currently has projects in nine African countries in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), including a project to improve the dairy industry in Kenya.

"Land O'Lakes wants to contribute to ending hunger and alleviating poverty in a way that we know best: working with the food industries in African countries and forming unique partnerships with organizations like Hoops4Africa," Penn said.

To help Hoops4Africa achieve its goal of reaching 2 million Africans about HIV prevention and nutrition, Penn said, Land O'Lakes will organize basketball games and exhibitions at schools, which will attract large audiences. Local Kenyan basketball players will also participate in the exhibition games.

According to Penn, the visits of the NBA players will be publicized on radio and television, at sporting events, and through personal appearances. Major U.S. media will also cover the 2005 Kenya trip and air it on such shows as "Larry King Live," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and MTV programs.

"Around the world, and particularly in Africa, NBA basketball players are held in high regard," said Gregory Shepard of HomeWorks Remodeling Assurance, another Hoops4Africa sponsor. "We know that we are on the right track and that our approach is sound. It will have a significant impact."

Shepard pointed to a similar project that was carried out in China. Chinese NBA star Yao Ming was joined by Hall of Fame basketball star Magic Johnson, who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1991, to talk about AIDS prevention in a public service announcement on Chinese television.

Land O'Lakes and Hoops4Africa are thinking long-term about spreading their vital messages about health and nutrition. The five-day trip the NBA players make to Kenya will be just a start.

"We are very interested in getting corporate Kenya and their professional teams to pick up where we leave off," said Penn, "and to dedicate themselves to reaching as many schools as possible over the year to spread these messages in the classroom. We are the catalysts."

Hoops4Africa plans to expand the program to other African countries, Shepard added. "We think the program is very useful," he said. "We may actually incorporate other sports such as cricket and soccer."

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