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Former Owl Degou Spreading Peace Through Basketball in South Africa

A four-year member of the Keene State College women’s basketball team from 2007–10, Kristen Degou always felt that she’d be doing something related to the sport when she graduated. Little did she know that, two years later, her love for the sport would send her to Durban, South Africa.

“When I was at Keene State, I saw my future in the sport. That’s what made me work so hard,” said Degou, a Newburyport, Mass., native who finished her Owl career sixth in all-time scoring with 1,300 points. “In basketball, you can see your hard work pay off every day, and I knew I was responsible for my own success on the court. Now I’m trying to teach kids the same thing.”

Although she enjoyed her two years following graduation serving as junior varsity coach at Georgetown (Mass.) High School, Degou wanted something more rewarding – she found that in PeacePlayers International (PPI).

Founded in 2001, PPI is a non-profit organization that brings children from communities in conflict together to play basketball. Its coaches and mentors work year round to unite, educate, and inspire young people to create a more peaceful world. PeacePlayers has programs in four locations; Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Cyprus, and South Africa.

Degou learned about the organization from Claire Perry, a former Cornell player and KSC assistant coach who spent two years working for PeacePlayers. “She told me I would really like it,” said Degou. “When they were rehiring, I applied, and I got the job.”

Although she had a few trepidations, Degou was up for the challenge. “It’s a two-year commitment, so that’s a long time. But that was the only drawback,” she said. “Everything else, I was thrilled about. The opportunity sounded so amazing.”

Degou began her first-year fellowship with the program in Feb. 2012 and recently returned to Durban to complete her second year. “Kristen is a very analytical person who dissects everything before she does it, so I thought it was a little bit out of her realm,” said KSC Coach Keith Boucher. “I didn’t know she would branch out that much, but I thought it would be a very positive experience for her.”

According to Degou, PPI has three programs in South Africa; a primary program for students in grade six and seven; a more-in depth leadership development program for students in grade 8-12, and a professional development program where players who have come up through the ranks can be elevated to coaching and mentor positions. One of the main goals of the program is to develop leaders.

“Basketball is the perfect tool to teach things like self-discipline, teamwork and leadership,” said Degou. “We try to harness the power of sports to do that.”

“There’s not a lot of employment and educational opportunities in South Africa, so we try to let the kids have a vision for the future.” Degou added. “Basketball gives them an opportunity to excel in something in life and hopefully get them on the right path.”

Working in predominantly underprivileged areas with facilities lacking the amenities of courts found in the United States doesn’t deter the energetic and motivated staff. “The kids love it,” said Degou. “Every school I visit is so passionate about it.”

Degou, who is in charge of PPI’s leadership-development program doesn’t do a lot of hands-on coaching, concentrating instead on mentoring the older coaches to develop their skills to teach basketball correctly. Because the skill level varies significantly among the young players, Degou says the coaches keep instruction simple. A made basket or lay-up is reason for a smile and applause.

Drills are constantly being related to life. “We might say to a player, ‘If the basketball hoop is your goal, who do the defenders represent in your life?’” Degou said. “We want them to make and analogy between the game and life.”

Lessons are also taught off the court. Life-skills education is a part of the curriculum, touching on such subjects as teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, crime, gender issues, and the threat of HIV/AIDS.

Tournaments are formed, and boys and girls games among the 35 primary schools around the city are highly spirited and competitive. Soccer and rugby are the sport staples in the country, but basketball is starting to make inroads. “I think its growing,” said Degou. “They just started showing NBA games on South African TV, so people are starting to see it more and read about it.”

Many people know some of the well-known players from Africa who have gone on to play in the NBA, including past greats Hakeem Abdul Olajuwon and Manute Bol, as well as current players like Luol Deng (Chicago Bulls), Serge Ibaka (Oklahoma City Thunder), and Bismack Biyombo (Charlotte Bobcats).

Degou said the younger players aspire to travel to the United States and play in the NBA. “Going to the United States is like is a dream for them,” she said. “When you tell someone you’re from the US, it’s a bid deal. I think a lot of them aspire to travel and see the world, which is awesome.”

Degou, who lives in a modest garden cottage, has adapted well to living abroad. “There are grocery stores, movie theatres, and a mall, so it wasn’t a total culture shock,” she said. “But the culture is more laid back. Everything moves a little bit slower, and that’s something I’ve had to adapt to.”

Degou, along with a Kyler McClary, who played at Willamette University in Oregon, are the two American fellows in South Africa. She also compares notes with the other American Fellows in the three different locations. “It’s such a unique job, and we share a lot of the same struggles,” she said. “I obviously miss my family and my friends, but I made my own little family over there.”

Degou says she enjoys the warm tropical climate and the opportunity to travel around the country. “I’ve been a few game reserves and gone on a safari,” she said. “It’s amazing to see wild life in its environment and get so close to the animals.”

Degou still wears her Keene State gear and uses it as incentive for the players. “If someone works really hard that day or shows a lot of effort, I’ll give them a jersey,” she said. “I’m actually bringing back two huge KSC duffle bags and shoes because a lot of my coaches don’t have any shoes.”

“Any time you can go out of your comfort zone and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially people who don’t have as much as you, is extremely eye opening,” Degou said. “The people over there believe in the South African humanist philosophy of Ubauntu, which the Boston Celtics used when they won their championship in 2008, focusing on people’s allegiances and relations with each other.”

Degou is happy she got involved with PeacePlayers International. “Peace has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people, so I hope it gives me a chance to stay in basketball,” said Degou. “I’ve always found myself very passionate about sports – if I’m able to work in basketball the rest of my life and do something I love and help other people, I’d consider that for a career.”

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