Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt and her University of Tennessee staff routinely preach basketball fundamentals to campers — just not to players from Iraq.
There were 10 eager teenage Iraqi girls at Summitt’s annual camp this week, taking in every word: Games can’t be won without defense and ball control is the foundation of good offense.
“At the beginning I didn’t play well, but I got better after a few days,” 16-year-old Shan wrote in a translated blog post for the US Department of State. “I became more open and comfortable after the first few games. I’ve learned so much about basketball and I saw places that are very different from Iraq.”
For security purposes, Shan’s and the rest of the players’ last names were not given. The girls, who do not speak English, wrote about their experiences for the US Department of State.
The Iraqi contingent was in Knoxville from June 3 through Thursday as part of a US Department of State exchange program.
They toured Washington, attended a WNBA game and visited the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in addition to participating in Summitt’s camp.
“They were the most popular team in camp,” Summitt said. “When we introduced them, you would not believe how the other campers applauded and responded. They wanted to hang out with them.”
Unlike the US campers who have played basketball for most of their lives, the Iraqi girls have played organized basketball for only a year or two.
Most of them play on open-air courts in Iraq and get little game time during the hot summers. At Summitt’s camp, they were playing in the state-of-the-art Pratt Pavilion with two full-sized courts.
Summitt said she was impressed with how easily the girls — who are from different parts of Iraq — came together to form a team.
“They didn’t know each other and they came together. Their coaches were so excited,” she said. “With our campers here, they just got better because they played against better competition.”
A few of the Iraqi campers recognized Summitt from an instructional video she made for last year’s Sport 4 Peace basketball camp in Iraq. Tennessee doctoral students Sarah Hillyer and Ashleigh Huffman founded the nonprofit organization that works with kids around the world.
By the time they left the country on Thursday, they were very aware of what Summitt has meant for the sport.
“The girls have been looking at the pictures they took with coach Summitt, saying: ‘We can’t wait to go home and show our families that the best coach in the country is also our friend,’” Hillyer said.
The girls and their coaches were also struck by how similar things were once they got on the basketball court, Hillyer said. The Iraqi players and US players taught one another how to count and say “good game” in their respective languages.
“In basketball they are the same, and they like music and fashion like we do,” 14-year-old Shinyan wrote about her impressions.
Khoshee, a 24-year-old coach for the Iraqi team, said visiting the US was a dream for her.
“I will tell others that the US is like this: More open than Iraq, especially for girls,” Khoshee wrote.
“Girls here can even travel by themselves and their parents are so supportive of them. It’s so much more free and people also respect others and protect their environment,” Khoshee said.
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