Hoops clinic breaks down cultural barriers

What happened in Guatemala in March, said Jeff Hassel, senior associate pastor of Davidson United Methodist Church, was a "holy surprise."

It began with church member Mike Kayes, who had never been on a mission trip nor really intended ever to go on one. He recently agreed to attend a fundraising event for missions, prepared to make a donation.

The speaker talked about a missions trip he'd been on with the church. Then he told the audience the biggest problem they had on such trips was that they didn't know what to do with the kids there.

"It was like somebody hit me over the head with a two-by-four," Kayes said.

Kayes raised his hand, because he did know what to do with the kids. He committed on the spot to the church's next mission trip to remote villages in Guatemala.

Basketball in soccer country

Kayes has long worked with youth and sports, including running the basketball operations for Stewards of the Game, a sports ministry he co-founded 12 years ago in the Lake Norman area.

He packed 35 donated basketballs, jerseys and nets, even though his fellow missionaries subtly reminded him that children in Guatemala love soccer.

Kayes was not deterred.

"... Basketball is my main sport, and one I've coached for over 20 years, so I was determined to at least try to play basketball the first day," he wrote in an essay about the trip.

While many members of the missions team headed off to run medical clinics and repair houses in Guatemalan villages, Kayes set up a sports clinic at an elementary school in Chucam, a remote mountain village.

The school had one small outdoor basketball court. Kayes tied new nets onto its wobbly goals. Ninety-five boys and girls in first through fourth grades waited to play.

Kayes said the children were "remarkable."

They paid attention as Kayes explained basketball skills through an interpreter, playing for 21/2 hours each morning. Kayes was surprised by their quickness, agility and balance and their good attitudes.

By the end of the week, all 95 children could dribble the ball with either hand. The older children he worked with in the afternoons could run complicated basketball drills without a hitch. Kayes doesn't recall a child falling, crying, complaining or refusing to participate.

Valuing the ball

One moment that stood out, Kayes said, was an extreme example of what American basketball coaches call "valuing the basketball," which means to not turn the ball over to the other team and to take high-percentage shots.

During a pickup game on the last day of the sports clinic, a basketball bounced off the court and into a ravine hundreds of feet deep, a common land feature in the mountainous region.

Kayes told the children to keep playing, because they had plenty of basketballs, and the game resumed. One player, however, had slipped away.

Twenty minutes later, a young boy named Neto, covered with mud, rushed onto the court carrying the ball that had plunged over the cliff. The proud boy was presented the game ball that day.

New way to connect

The huge success of the basketball clinic has changed Kayes, and it has changed the way that Davidson United Methodist looks at sports ministry.

"It's a serious ministry, as far as being able to teach life lessons and touch the lives of kids," Hassel said. "It was a big surprise to me to watch what God did with one man, a bunch of sports equipment and the children of a village.

"It just opened up a whole new way to connect with kids and form relationships with them."

As for Kayes, he sees more mission trips in his future, and he hopes to take his son along.

"Sports can break down language barriers and cultural barriers," Kayes said. "When you have a grownup with a ball and kids, there's just magic."