Paul Cooley

Happy Caravan Basketball

The hopeful children lined up in front of the basketball hoop, eager for their opportunity to take a shot. Their eyes lit up with wonder and excitement as they gripped the ball. It was frigid, dark, rainy and muddy, but that didn't stop them from taking their chance. They had encountered far worse on their journey here, and poor weather conditions were not going to stand in their way.  

The wide-eyed children were refugees stationed in Greece in search of a new home and a new life. They had survived the insurmountable, fleeing their homeland decimated by war and violence, and just wanted a place to feel safe and call home. And for that moment, with a ball in their hands, and a hoop as their goal, that's all that mattered. One child after another hoisted shot after shot, and each time the ball swished through the net, the group cheered.

Basketball In Greece

Growing up, I found basketball was always my escape. While my challenges paled in comparison to these children, I still needed an outlet where I could feel free. If I failed a test, got into an argument with my parents, or felt lonely, I simply picked up my basketball and shot hoops. As soon as the ball left my fingertips and arced towards the hoop, I forgot about everything, and I felt free. It didn't matter that the cracked pavement court was imperfect with Dikembe Mutombo-size tree branches disrupting my shot. It just forced me to be creative. It didn't matter that on missed baselines shots from the left side, the ball would roll down a giant hill forcing me to chase it into oncoming traffic. It just made me resilient.

After an hour in my driveway, reenacting the Celtics-Lakers series from the 1980s, I felt better about my life. I was no longer myself. Instead I was Larry Legend knocking down 3s, and Kevin McHale with the greatest pivot move in history. I attempted hook shots like Kareem and Magic, but would purposefully miss, because after all I was a Boston Celtics fan. The player I pretended to be didn't matter. What mattered was that I was briefly escaping real life. All my problems slipped away for that time, and I felt free. I always wished I could pass that feeling on to someone else.   

I recently went through what some would call a mid-life crisis. I turned 40, was let go from my job in education, a first for me, and I moved from New York City to suburban Connecticut. Unemployed, with time on my hands, I obsessively checked my social media accounts and extensively followed the news. I was tired of the tweets, the hate, the division and the suffering. I was tired of sitting around and doing nothing. That's when I discovered Happy Caravan.

Happy Caravan

Happy Caravan was a non-profit organization that provided social, therapeutic and educational support to refugee children in Central Greece. It was a safe place where children were instilled with hope and surrounded by love. A friend, who I had volunteered with years ago in the Dominican Republic, reached out to me suggesting this might be a powerful experience. That message changed my life.

Before arriving to Happy Caravan, I spent a few days in Athens and learned that in Greece, basketball is much more popular that I thought. The city's professional team was called Panathinaikos, and the club's famed green three-leaf clover was spray painted across the city. I felt a connection to it because of its similarity to the Boston Celtics logo. And just a few weeks after my visit, former Celtics coach Rick Pitino took over the team.

With the help of some new Greek friends, I scooped up a ticket and watched Panathinaikos face the Turkish team, Fenerbahce Beko Instanbul, at the Olympic Stadium. There were a few names on the rosters that stood out including Keith Langford (Kansas), DeShaun Thomas (Ohio State) and Thanasas Antetokounmpo, the younger brother of Giannis, the NBA All-Star better known as the "Greek Freak."

It was a joy to see the fans chant and sing and cheer. It felt more like a soccer match, as thousands of rowdy fans recited an infinite amount of songs.  The only drawback was that the same fans also smoked an infinite supply of cigarettes and a cloud of smoke filled the arena.

Giannis Court Mural I immediately bought a No. 43 Antetokounmpo T-shirt, and joined the chorus of fans the best that I could. Despite losing to the more disciplined Istanbul team, Panathianaikos proved that basketball is alive and well in Greece.  

The next day, I visited Sepolia, a small low-income neighborhood a few subway stops outside of central Athens. Sepolia is not on the typical tourist itinerary as there are no grand hotels or famous ancient ruins. I found the town to be quaint and charming, with a strong sense of community.

As a basketball fanatic, I knew this location was special. Sepolia is where Giannis Antetokounmpo grew up. He is an active philanthropist in the community, and now a giant mural of the Greek Freak is displayed on the local basketball court in his honor.

I played a little one-on-two basketball with some middle schoolers and watched a portion of a league practice in which children scrimmaged and perfected pick and rolls. The courts and hoops were no different than those in America. In fact, the fenced-in feel reminded me of a larger version of the West 4th Street court in NYC, and the bleachers on the sideline were reminiscent of Venice Beach. The sun glistened on the court, and basketball brought everyone together. On my way out, I stopped by a local store, where the owners proudly showed me photos of them standing and smiling side by side with Giannis. He liked to visit, and everyone seemed to have a picture with him. Giannis and basketball had put Sepolia on the map, and pride was in the air.

When I arrived to Happy Caravan, I was ready to help in any way. I taught math and English, and bonded with children over competitive games of Uno. As a veteran educator, I enjoyed skipping the red tape and bureaucracy, and just simply connect with kids. I was able to meet the founder, Alaeddin Janid, a Syrian refugee, an incredible man with an incredible story.

Ala once lived a normal life in Syria working in the clothing industry surrounded by family and friends. And that's when the bombing began. He fled for his life and lost many loved ones along the way. His pain filled journey landed him in Greece and then to the Netherlands, where he received his citizenship. It took a strong support system to adjust to a new life, and that's exactly why he created Happy Caravan.

Sporting Goods Store

Ala had every right to be cynical, angry and vengeful, but instead he was charismatic, funny and caring. He had a smile that could brighten a room, and a hug that could warm the heart. I was so inspired by his spirit and story, and it encouraged me to reflect on my own life, and what I could do to make a difference.

It was then I met Iain, another volunteer and basketball fanatic, who also happened to be a Celtics fan. We convened daily on how to help the children beyond academics, and we both concluded that basketball could be our gift to them.

As soon as we parked in front of Intersport, a large sporting goods store, there was the hoop greeting us from the window. It would be ours. The store staff seemed elated that we would take it off their hands. We were told it was the last one in stock. (It may have been the only one in stock.) Thanks to a generous donation from Iain's former college roommate (a math teacher, basketball coach and fellow Celtics fan) we paid for it and then arranged a time to pick it up. Afterwards, I wondered how we would actually transfer the goliath in our small minivan.

On the day of the delivery, rain dropped from the gray sky, and the air was brutally raw and cold. It was my last day of volunteering, and I feared that the weather would prevent us from achieving our goal. But Iain calmed my fears, and through some crafty teamwork, we made it happen.

While I struggle assembling IKEA furniture, Iain, was practically a handyman. He came armed with straps, blankets, buckles and a variety of tools. With him leading the way, we broke down the hoop, jammed half of it inside the van, and propped the other half on the roof. Rain and sweat dribbled down our brows, and our faces were chilled and red, but none of that mattered. Basketball was going to be played that day.

Hoop Construction

We arrived at the camp, and when the children saw the basketball hoop mounted on the van, they rushed over to us with excitement. They surrounded it not knowing how to help, but just wanting to be a part of something special. Despite the language barrier, the children worked together with us to construct the hoop. They intuitively carried the hoop to our approved spot at the camp, grabbed wrenches and screws, clicked the pieces into place, and formed a water brigade to fill the base. It was smoothly coordinated, like a basketball team running the perfect flex offense, with screens and cuts, and crisp passes, working as one, for an easy backdoor layup.

Not one child complained of the freezing cold, the rain, the mud or the work. Instead, they eagerly and happily worked together. By the time we finished, it was dark, but this would not deter us from playing.

With the help of a distant lamp, and our iPhone flashlights, we played on the makeshift court that we built. The hoop's approved location was on a hard dirt path adjacent to the school. On a normal day, the ground was hard, and the ball could bounce. But today, it was wet, muddy and dotted with puddles. But that wouldn't stop us.

Children formed a line and kindly took turns hoisting up shots. Their eyes widened when they got their chance, and make or miss, they cheered each other on. And for a brief instant, their journey, their insurmountable obstacles, dissipated into the air. It was just children, a ball and a hoop. It was an escape. In that moment, we all got lost in the world of basketball, and that's all that mattered.

-- Follow Paul Cooley on Twitter @Cooley3333.