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On The Whistle Podcast | Full Court Peace: Playing One Sport as One Team

November 17, 2020

Gary Goldberg

In Northern Ireland, soccer led to rioting and violence between Protestant and Catholic boys.

But could basketball be different? One man thought so, and he created a team of Catholics and Protestants together.

Mike Evans, founder and executive director of Full Court Peace, says basketball can be a unifying force. (The Dalai Lama agrees with him, by the way.)

In this episode of the On the Whistle podcast, I talked with Mike about how basketball can unify people of different races, religions, and economic classes.

We discussed:

  • Who Mike is and how Full Court Peace got its start in Northern Ireland
  • The language coaches use to bridge deep divisions on a team
  • Expanding the program into Cuba and cities in the U.S.

 

Listen now

 

Full Transcript

Gary Goldberg:

Hey guys, Gary here. Before we get to the show today, I wanted to highlight our sponsor, SportsEngine. SportsEngine is dedicated to making the life of a youth sports volunteer easier. Through their applications, people are able to save time on administrative tasks, allowing them more time to focus on developing their athletes. More than a million teams, leagues and clubs use sports engine every day to run their websites, promote their programs and to collect sign-ups. They also offer an easy solution for getting uniforms delivered directly to their athletes homes. It's called SportsEngine Gear, and you can check it out at sportsengine.com/gear to get started. Great. Now, onto our show.

Announcer:

You're listening to On The Whistle, the podcast that explores the impact that coaches, teachers and mentors from youth sports organizations and schools have on young people's lives. Let's get into the show.

Gary Goldberg:

Welcome everybody to another episode of On The Whistle, where today we've got Mike Evans, who is the founder and I think director ... Mike, is that your current title, what is your current title?

Mike Evans:

Yes sir. Executive director, yep.

Gary Goldberg:

Executive director of Full Court Peace. Full Court Peace is a remarkable and really interesting organization that rehabilitates basketball courts and rehabilitates communities at the same time. And some communities are local and some are international. And we're going to learn a lot about that as we talk to Mike today and get a sense of his story and the important work that he is doing and his organization is doing to improve the lives of young people. And as always, we're going to give voice to the mentors and leaders of our organizations and communities that are helping young kids take that journey to adulthood. So Mike, welcome to the show, it's really nice to have you.

Mike Evans:

Thank you very much for having me. It's an honor to tell the story, but for such a great company to be associated, it's awesome. Thank you.

Gary Goldberg:

Yeah, Mike. You're welcome. So let's start at the beginning. I know where the story ends up, but where did it start, where did you grow up, Mike, and how did you find a love for basketball?

Mike Evans:

I grew up in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and I grew up in a small town called Western, which back then had 8,000 people. And now I think it's at a booming 10,000. And it's an affluent, predominantly White community. And I played every sport growing up. My dad influenced me greatly in that process. He grew up in the Midwest in Chicago and played a lot of baseball and a lot of football. But he didn't play a lot of basketball. And funny fact, he actually went kindergarten through 12th grade with none other but Jerry Colangelo, who later became the owner of the Phoenix Suns and all that kind of stuff.

Mike Evans:

But, basketball was the third sport for my brother and me growing up. And then I think to separate myself from my brother, my brother is only 10 months older than me, so to separate myself in that regard, I really gravitated towards basketball and had a very influential best friend and as early as first grade, who was only a basketball player. And found that as a way to differentiate myself in the household.

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, he was only a basketball player in the first grade?

Mike Evans:

Yeah, he wasn't specializing like now. He is the order of sports, started with basketball and he was a very gifted athlete. Still is my best friend.

Gary Goldberg:

That's nice.

Mike Evans:

Yeah. And basketball became first and then he played soccer and football and baseball casually, but he really influenced me to put basketball first.

Gary Goldberg:

So, it sounds like your dad may have been the earliest memory of a mentor that you had.

Mike Evans:

Yeah. My dad was my first coach for sure. He also was my first official coach for a fourth grade rec basketball team that went undefeated, if that means anything in Western Connecticut. But yeah, my dad taught me all the fundamentals of competing through baseball and through football of never giving up, trying to stay positive and working on repetition, which is such a valuable lesson for kids for life. I'm a left-handed pitcher, so throwing pitches until it was perfect translated so well to basketball later on with shooting and of course in life, just repeating things you want to be great at. But yeah, for sure, my dad's the first guy to ... My first coach in a lot of different ways.

Gary Goldberg:

And so you ended up playing basketball into college. Through high school and into college, you ended up at, is it Hamilton?

Mike Evans:

Yeah. Played at division three, Hamilton College, a small liberal arts school in Upstate, New York. And was there my freshman year wanting to play for Tom Murphy who had won 600 games at the division three level. And Hamilton was one of the winningest programs of all divisions at that point.

Gary Goldberg:

It's interesting. When I think of great basketball in college, Hamilton just doesn't necessarily pop into my head.

Mike Evans:

It doesn't, that's fine. Yeah, that's fine. There's a great sports illustrated article for people to dig up called The Game That Never Happened or The Game That Never Was, which is [30N.O. 00:05:25] Hamilton College playing against ... Hamilton back then in the early 90s was when this 30N.O. team existed. Not allowed to play in the NCAA tournament for academic reasons. The league wanted the kids to be more focused on school. So this powerhouse Hamilton never got to play against the team that ended up winning the division three final. But those teams back then and through the 90s were only four or five losses each year, including when I went there.

Mike Evans:

So, went there, got cut, got cut. My freshman year, I played JV basketball at Hamilton, which I tell kids now is division four basketball. And they say, "That doesn't exist." And I said, "It did for me." And I just wasn't ready. And coach Murphy knew that. So, that was my beginning of my college career. Lucky enough to have great mentors and coach Murphy and a guy named Randie Torgalski, who's the head coach at Elmira College in New York in getting me back to where I was in high school. I had assumed I could just walk in division three basketball. And I was sorely mistaken, and ended up being a contributor and a starter. And I played for a different coach my senior year, but set a couple of three point records that are still intact there. And just so listeners know, I set no defensive records. I would come nowhere near that. But yeah, great overall experience at Hamilton on the basketball court.

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, what did the experience teach you getting taken from varsity, not the JV, that freshman year and what mistakes do you think you made going into that freshman year, what assumptions did you make that were just, looking backwards, baseless or wrong?

Mike Evans:

Well, that's such a good question because it's so relevant today. I hear a lot of kids say the phrase, "I'll just play D3." And I think only 1.4% of high school players plays division three basketball. And it's such a different level of play. And the mistake I made was going in thinking that being an all-state player in Connecticut, which is like being an all county player in Texas, would automate the process for me to be a standout player at Hamilton. And I got out of shape. I didn't care enough about my cardio and I stopped repeating my shot like my dad had taught me at such a young age. I was also so influenced by a guy named Dave Hopla, who was Kobe Bryant's private shooting coach when Kobe was first in the NBA.

Mike Evans:

And I just thought, "All right, I've done my work. Now it's time to play college basketball." And that summer going into freshman year, I didn't work as hard as I had been working. I should have been working twice as hard. And then getting cut and having to play JV with uniforms that were from the varsity team 20 years before. And having to play with guys who were just ... The JV team, I was maybe one of two serious players on it who wanted to get back to varsity. The rest of the roster was made up of guys who were at Hamilton for fun. And they were like, "Oh, you've joined the JV team." So I'm in van rides with guys who don't have the same aspirations that I had. And it was really humbling. It was a reset, it was a restart. It was, "Mike, wake up. This is another level. You've got to adapt to the new level and have a new work ethic if you want to make an impact here." That was the lesson.

Gary Goldberg:

Yeah, it sounds super valuable. As life goes on, we face those [inaudible 00:08:47] setbacks and lessons. I face them weekly. So, it's good to know that some of those early experiences can reset your aptitude towards failure and understand how to use failure as a weapon towards future success.

Mike Evans:

Absolutely.

Gary Goldberg:

So, you wrap up Hamilton and I believe you decide you're going to go play professional basketball in Ireland. Is that correct?

Mike Evans:

That is correct. My goal was to go and play after college. And I was going to do that in any form that I could. And again, through coach Murphy, I found a contact in a beautiful organization called PeacePlayers International, which is an international organization that back then had figured out, with the help of people in Belfast, Northern Ireland, that basketball was the only sport that Protestant and Catholic communities did not consider to be their own. In other words, sports in Northern Ireland at the time were segregated by ... Protestants who were of the English descent would predominantly play rugby and cricket. Catholics would play Gaelic football and hurling, and everybody played soccer. But soccer was this contentious activity that the teams in Northern Ireland had labels. They were either Protestant or Catholic teams because of where their stadium was located. And everyone's heard of the Celtic vs Rangers soccer game that's in Scotland. It's the same thing. It's a Protestant Catholic thing that leads to rioting and violence. But basketball that this organization had figured out was predominantly a neutral.

Mike Evans:

They had figured it out because another organization had started doing that work and then PeacePlayers was able to expand it. And they hired me out of Hamilton to go live in Belfast and to start up a Belfast chapter. They had been in the outskirts of Belfast and they wanted to be in the city of Belfast. And part of the deal was that I could try out for a local team. And that back then was my motive, "All right, I guess I'll do this community work, but I'm going to get to play. I can't wait to play and show up to Belfast." And this is not a knock on Irish basketball because believe it or not, Mario Elie, champion for the Houston Rockets, started his career in Ireland. And there's been a lot of great Irish players.

Mike Evans:

But the league I was in was just in Northern Ireland and it was a step down from division three Hamilton College. And I quickly learned that. And then through doing this work with PeacePlayers International, I started to fall in love instead with basketball as a unifying force. And the semi-pro basketball became something on the back burner quite really quickly. And believe it or not, it happened at a chance meeting with the Dalai Lama on a basketball court.

Gary Goldberg:

Well, we want to hear a little bit about the Dalai Lama, but what do you mean when you say basketball is a unifying force?

Mike Evans:

Basketball, I'm biased, but seems to me to be the best example of a team sport. Everybody plays defense and everyone plays offense, and those roles can happen in the blink of an eye. And communication during the game on the court is vital to success. You cannot go a game without talking to your teammates. And so naturally if you want to play it, and when you play a sport, you want to be successful at it, you have to talk to the people you're playing with. You have to communicate, you have to troubleshoot, you have to switch, you have to do things in transition, you have to do things without a plan, you have to plan, you have to build the ship as it sails sometimes. And I think that's unique to basketball. And that's where I was able to see Protestants and Catholics eventually participating in the game and being forced to speak to one another where normally they just simply would not.

Gary Goldberg:

I read an interview or a piece about you in a graduate newsletter for Harvard's graduate program. In which case you described some of the boys from opposing sides of the religious spectrum feeling as if they were somehow being dishonest or disloyal to their home towns or their churches by playing with these other boys at first. It's a pretty powerful statement for free play. They're going to play a game, right, it's not they're picking up arms. They're literally picking up a basketball. But it sounds like the political and economic and religious divides and some of these communities were so bad that these young men or young boys felt that they were being dishonest or dishonorable. How did that come to you, meaning what did you see when you saw that, what did it look like?

Mike Evans:

These are kids from working class neighborhoods. And in the working class neighborhoods, you still have remnants of that 30 year war from 68 to 98 that we all know as The Troubles, which is pretty much gone in Belfast. But in the working class neighborhoods, the IRA and it's Protestant counterpart, the UDA, still have tentacles that create division among communities. And there are also these 50 foot walls that are still standing in these communities that separate Protestant and Catholic communities. They were put up by the British army in the 70s to try to keep the peace, but now they're standing there as these symbols of division. But these kids are coming from pockets of religiously homogenous communities, where they're constantly hearing and seeing the message of staying away from their counterparts. And this is a place where everyone's predominantly White, everybody speaks English and everyone believes in Christ. There's just a Protestant and Catholic division yet they all hate each other, just in these little pockets.

Mike Evans:

What did it look like? It was telling a group of Catholic kids who I had been coaching for some time, "Hey, we're going to join this team with these Protestant kids." And they look at me like, "You're crazy, no way. I'm not going over there to that school to play." And vice versa on the other side. Neither group was more open than the other. And I think the betrayal piece is, the biggest bomb in the history of The Troubles went off in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. In 1998, if you're two, you're only 24 right now. So if you're two or three or four and your uncle or dad or mom dies as a result of a bomb set off by another organization that's counter to your neighborhood or is your enemy according to your mentors, you're not going to forget it when you're 15. You're going to remember it. So, they felt like they were going against the idea of staying with their group when I asked them to join that team, that high school team, the first team that basically kick-started Full Court Peace.

Gary Goldberg:

And when you worked to break down those divides as a mentor, as a coach, what skills or language did you use to help these young boys understand that there is something bigger than just this hate that had somehow infected their communities?

Mike Evans:

I was really careful about my pronouns. I used the word we and us more than any other word. Beyond that, I give all credit to the boys. But, we had to get ready for games against other teams and we were at a point where we were coming up upon our first game and there were kids on the team who had yet to speak to one another.

Mike Evans:

So, you go into practice, which is very hard to organize because you've got to get Protestants across community lines or Catholics across community lines into a gym without anyone else seeing it. And you're running drills that are completely team-oriented, whether it's a zone defense drill where the zone has to shift together. If one person doesn't shift, we fail, putting the responsibility on the individual to take care of the unit going into a game, and then having to keep using that same vocabulary over and over again until they understood that. If they did not hold up their end of the bargain, the unit would fail. So it was predominantly language that I was using in huddles and during the game. But at the end of the day, I might've been the facilitator of this activity but it was the boys' bravery eventually to decide to go against the tide in their neighborhood and to try to play as a unit that led to their victories and their overall experience.

Gary Goldberg:

So, Mike, it sounds like it's super impactful, super successful experience both for you as an individual, as a coach and for the community that you're working at. What was your next transition, to come back to the United States to go to graduate school?

Mike Evans:

In 2009, we left Belfast as a program. We had created four teams across community lines, all of which traveled to the United States to play in a season ending tournament-

Gary Goldberg:

And that was the big hook, right, that was what got the kids into it.

Mike Evans:

Yes, absolutely. It was the reason they joined the team, but not the reason they stayed on the team, is the way that we like to say it. And then, financially, it became very difficult to fundraise for Belfast. The pound was twice as strong as the dollar and we were raising all of our money in dollars, which was very difficult. And the crash in 08 didn't help us either. In 2009, I was recruited to go down to Havana with an organization in Miami to consult them on the symbolism of basketball in Havana's tougher, poorer neighborhoods. And I happily went, I was always curious. And I looked at this divide, I said, "You know what, how much longer is Full Court Peace going to go to other lands and tell them to get along, where's our role really there, how could we be Americans and go to these foreign places and tell them to settle their differences?"

Mike Evans:

It started to sound and feel a little bit obnoxious and intrusive to me. And I looked at Cuba as an example to broker a deal with Cubans as one of the sides of a conflict. Cubans and Americans have not interacted for 50 or 60 years at this point, and I was intrigued when this organization said, "We'll pay for you to go down and give us a report on basketball." So in 2009, I went down and played pickup basketball at, you could call it the Rucker Park of Havana for two weeks. And just got to know some guys. I speak Spanish, got to know some guys, said, "I'll be back in a year to fix up this court. I'll bring a group of Americans with me." And they looked at me as an American, having been told for years how bad of people we were and said, "Okay, sure, you're going to come back. Sure you are."

Mike Evans:

And I had no way of being in touch with them. This is the craziest part. I had no way to call them, to email them, to text them, to say, "Hey, we're coming on this date." We literally just showed up. I recruited a bunch of guys who had played at Columbia University and were up for an adventure. I said, "It'll be safe. We just got to get there." And we show up with a bunch of basketballs and uniforms to this court a year later. And the Cubans looking me like, "I can't believe this guy is back here."

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, how did you get there, did you go through Canada, did you go through Mexico or did you get a special visa to go directly in, how did it work?

Mike Evans:

The first time I went, I went through Mexico with the help of this organization. And then the second time, I was navigating it on my own and we went through [inaudible 00:20:33]. And I would carry what was called a travel license back then, which is what you get now when you go that the airlines just included. But it was a very secure document and important document if you wanted to go in and out of there. And so we had these documents, we went down, we flew in and walked through the court, showed up. And there were these guys and they couldn't believe that I'd come back. And three days later, we had refurbished our first court in Havana. And we put on the tournament and 500 spectators came to watch.

Gary Goldberg:

When you say refurbished it, what does that look like, did you paint on the plane, did you have asphalt, did you bring new nets, what did you do?

Mike Evans:

You can't bring paint on planes. If you look at the list, when you check in during the next flight, there'll be an X over paint, which I learned the hard way. You can't bring paint. Got there, brought a bunch of paint brushes, brought whatever we could without raising a lot of eyebrows at customs. Deflated basketballs, uniforms for the tournament and got the paint when we got to Havana. Cement patching is the best you can do down there. You can't get asphalt. Once your projects grow to needing asphalt in Cuba, you start to raise government eyebrows. They started saying, "Well, what do you mean you need asphalt?" And then start asking a lot of questions. So we just wanted to dust off the court. How about that? That's probably a pretty good metaphor. We want it to dust it off and get it ready for play. So get a ladder and straighten the back boards, buy some new screws for the rims, tighten up the wooden back boards, clean off the court, put new lines down and then throw the jump ball and we're ready to play.

Mike Evans:

We're still like that down there. We've done 43 trips to Cuba and over 700 people have come with us. We've refurbished 18 courts, each court about four or five times. So, that's just new coats of paint, more cement patching. We're getting more creative. Some of the courts have drainage issues. So we start digging ditches and getting water to flow off. It's Caribbean Island, a lot of rain. But nothing more than that. We are not repaving. We're not doing indoor courts. We're just doing outdoor courts. So, that's the extent of the impact there physically. But the extent emotionally of continuing to go back and continuing to fulfill promises, I think is what breaks down this Cuban American divide over time. They say, "These guys are coming back every time. They're not asking for anything, they're only giving, they're not taking." And slowly but surely, we start to build very solid relationships over the last 11 years we've been in Havana.

Gary Goldberg:

Any interconnection or contact with local government while you're in Havana or are you still, even to this day, on the down low down there?

Mike Evans:

There's no such thing as a down low in Cuba. They know everything you're doing and everywhere you're going. So we have a policy, our completely honest policy, going in, coming out, either government, what were you doing in Cuba? Painting courts, giving basketballs away, helping basketball grow. Coming into Cuba, what are you doing here? I'm with Full Court Peace. My name's Mike. I've been here this many times. I'm going to this community on this day. We tell them everything. We've got no agenda. We just want basketball to grow and we want Americans and Cubans to do it together. So, we're totally honest. There's no down low in Cuba.

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, can you tell us any stories about some of the young people or older people that you met down in Cuba? Not that we would know them, but is there a story about this boy or that young girl or this woman or this man and how you built a friendship or how you changed their life or how you saw their perspective on life change due to your direct involvement or the program's involvement? I'd love to get a granular view but-

Mike Evans:

Sure, absolutely. It takes a while in any community I've been in, whether that's Juarez, Mexico, Indian reservation in Wyoming or Havana. It takes a while to gain their trust, but it also takes a while to find the right people that you want to trust. Understandably, in every community like this, there are people looking to earn off of your efforts because these are poor communities. They're looking for opportunities. Three years into doing the work, and for the first three years, I only did one trip a year. Now, we're up to about eight trips a year. Three years and I found somebody who wanted to grow basketball outside of his own community. He said, "There are so many more courts in other communities where I know people where we can grow your impact." And we had already done his court. And there were other communities, unfortunately, where guys said, "No, there's no other courts." Because they wanted to hog our efforts, which I totally understand. I don't blame them for that.

Mike Evans:

But a guy named a guy named Pedroso came to me in 2012. He was about 27 or 28 at the time and he had a government job, which he had to have, but you were allowed to be an entrepreneur back then. Raul Castro had allowed people to be entrepreneurs if they wanted be. And we found him to be someone who wanted to grow it for the sake of growing it for other people and not just himself in his own community. So, we were able to employ him to look for courts for us, to build contact lists for us in other communities. And so then organize a 300 player basketball league on the courts that we repair.

Mike Evans:

And so he now has this job that keeps him paying his bills and eating down there by going out and spreading basketball to other communities. A previously unheard of job before our presence there is now his full-time job. It allows him to grow his own contact list, to go out and have credibility in other communities and say, "Hey, we're here to help." He's an extension of our staff of our message in Havana. And he's very well-known now. And everywhere he goes, he's taking notes on courts that need this or that and sending them to me. And I think it's really given him an identity as an entrepreneur in Havana. Otherwise, he would have just continued with his government job.

Gary Goldberg:

That's super exciting. How are you dealing with the embargo issue around information and currency, how do you get him money so that you can pay him and things like that?

Mike Evans:

99% of the transactions are in person. You have to carry cash in Cuba because you can't use credit cards. Up until about a couple of months ago, you could send money, but now it's only family. And those rules are constantly changing. We're constantly monitoring what can Western Union do, what can't it do, what's the exchange rate, other ways around it that are legal. We don't do anything that's illegal. We're very transparent. Right now, we have to deal with sending money ... You can only send money to family and I'm not Cuban. So I find Cubans that live near Pedroso, who have relatives that live in the United States and I'll send money to them and they send money to their family and their family gives it to Pedroso. So it's very complicated to your point. It gets very convoluted to make sure we're doing it the right way.

Gary Goldberg:

It's interesting. It's hard enough to get people's lives changed and improve the lives of others, nevermind manage all the roadblocks associated with the international politics or even the local politics. Mike, transition us over to Fairfield, Connecticut. So, I was doing some research on you obviously before we got a chance to talk today. And as you've already said, you grew up in the Connecticut area. I read a quote that you state socioeconomic gaps and the Fairfield Connecticut area are amongst the largest nationally, which, I grew up in Rhode Island and Southern Massachusetts. And it's funny, I don't think of Connecticut in that way. I know that parts of New Haven were rough. Parts of Bridgeport are really rough. I don't think of Fairfield way. What's going on over there?

Mike Evans:

I don't want to get into the semantics of the stats, but unfortunately it's not among the most. It's the most divided in the country statistically in two categories; income levels between neighboring communities and standardized test scores among students that live in neighboring communities. We are the biggest in both categories.

Gary Goldberg:

Wow.

Mike Evans:

And we could talk about how one leads to another, but where our interest comes in is in the communication gap. So you don't have schools that are intermingled, unless it's a private school. And even still, on a private school, you've got a majority from affluence and a minority from ... They get scholarships from working class towns. So you have very minimal opportunities for youth to interact meaningfully across community lines because of these gaps that exist.

Mike Evans:

And Connecticut is known for hedge fund money. It's known for Greenwich, it's known for Westport, towns like that, New Canaan. But, you have, and this is a Harvard term, where you have dominant communities, you have subdominant communities. They can't exist without one another. So just to be perfectly clear and blunt, you've got a New Canaan, which is crazy money, 99% White, and then you've got neighboring Norwalk. And where do the small cleaning companies come from, where people will show up to your house and clean it? They come from Norwalk. That's the extent of the relationship between the communities. One is working for the other.

Mike Evans:

And that's probably going to continue. We're not out to change that. We're out to change, "Well, how do we get kids from different communities to come together?" And I recently called it preventative care for the society, because, thank God, we haven't had an incident in Connecticut like we've had in other cities that lead to these eruptions of violence. But we'd like to think that Full Court Peace's work allows for ... If that were to happen here in Bridgeport or in New Haven, that we have kids that already know that they're friends with someone across the community line or that they could reach out and help someone across the community line because they've met on a basketball court.

Gary Goldberg:

So what does the program look like in Connecticut and physically and emotionally? Physically, meaning, where are the courts, how many of them? if I were to walk up to a Full Court Peace court, does it look like a regular town basketball court or does it have different colors and different benches, how would I see one, what would I see if I saw one? And then emotionally, how are these, or nonphysically, how are they working for the fabric of the community around Connecticut? Give us an overview. I'm fascinated with the idea of what it looks like too.

Mike Evans:

Sure. So, our explosion this year in doing courts, we've done 11 in the last four and a half months in this area, was a result of COVID. We typically run basketball camps that bring kids together across community lines and put them on the same team for a week together as a mini version of the Belfast model. But because of COVID, we haven't been able to run any camps. But we can safely have kids paint courts together. So a basketball court, if you were to come up to it, physically, it's bright colors, odd designs and the keys, a lot of different colors next to each other.

Mike Evans:

And we use Sport Court, which is a regional basketball court installation company for all of our hoops. All of our hoops look the same and we put a Full Court Peace sticker up on every hoop. The courts being done is you'd show up to a court and there's White and Black kids and Hispanic kids all painting it together. Getting down on their hands and knees, taping it, cleaning it, painting it, taking a picture together at the end. And hopefully, the kids who don't live in that community know that they have a peace in that community now, and they can come and play on that court.

Gary Goldberg:

How do you recruit the kids, Mike, from the different neighborhoods?

Mike Evans:

Well, we'll identify courts just by driving around. It's not hard to find dilapidated courts in housing projects. We'll find the court. And then through my network, we'll find a coach who lives in that community or who coaches kids that live in that community. We'll find that kid's mom and say, "Hey, on this date, our target is to replace these hoops, to repaint it and to give you a bunch of basketballs." And the parents will say, "Well, that's fantastic." They'll look at me like the Cubans did, "Oh, okay, sure. You're going to come back and fix our court."

Mike Evans:

And then we go to a school where we either already have a high school club set up or where we want to be, have a club, and we'll say, "Hey, can you get five-year friends to a young boy or girl, why don't you get five-year friends to each shoot 50 free throws to get sponsorship for every one you make and we're going to use the money to go repair this court?" And then the money comes together. And a lot of businesses hear about it and you come and chip in and we usually have more than we need. And recently, Green Asphalt company also known as [inaudible 00:33:45] came in and said, "We're going to sponsor every hoop you put up this year."

Mike Evans:

So yeah, people have really come forward. And of course you guys came forward with uniforms for us, which was such a blessing for something we did in Danbury, Connecticut. And we get the kids to ... We show up. We say, "Here's how you paint a court guys." And we have a company called Accumark that puts a seal over the court for us for free and then puts the lines down. And then we go to Home Depot and buy a bunch of bright colored paint, grab the kids. The kids that raised the money and the kids that need the new court show up, meet each other, throw on the same t-shirt with Full Court Peace on it, throw on a mask and gloves to be safe and grab a brush and start painting together. And that's how the courts get made.

Gary Goldberg:

That sounds like an awesome project. And it sounds like a lot of fun too. I'm imagining these days are fun.

Mike Evans:

They are fun. They're long. Managing teenagers sometimes is probably the worst job in the world, getting the teenagers to continue to work and stop taking selfies. But, it's really fun. I think the kids, they're sweating. It's hot out. It's tough work sometimes. But when it's done and there's a before picture and after picture, typically we have kids that really want to stay involved. "Hey, when are you doing another court? I'd love to do it." And we have these massive volunteer list. Anytime we need a court to be redone, one email and we've got all the kids we need. It's pretty cool.

Gary Goldberg:

What about the games? I know that a bunch of these courts now become tournament venues. Are you working on building teams or tournaments where kids from varying economic backgrounds come together and play the game? [inaudible 00:35:19]

Mike Evans:

Yes. Yes. So, COVID makes it tricky. We have to do it safely. We typically try to do three on three or four and four to reduce the amount of kids on the court. But a couple of weeks ago, with your guys' help, with SquadLocker's help in getting us those basketball uniforms, we had a bunch of teenagers show up who I like to say they didn't look like each other. And we picked rand, we had them warm up and just do lay up lines. And then through that, you can figure out who the best players are, anchor the teams with talent and then spread them out. Spread the guys out based on not knowing each other, different communities. You're a team of five, you're a team of five, you're a team of five, the winner stays on. They all throw on the same uniform. They get to know each other. They have team huddles that are five or six feet apart from each other. Communication starts. Again, it's like Belfast all over again. Communication starts. They start talking to each other. The games get really competitive.

Mike Evans:

And then right when they finished, we feed them. And in that case, we sat them down and a hedge fund manager came in and did a financial literacy course for everybody at the court, which so surprisingly, neither demographic knows about. It's so funny that in the country where we have the most money, we don't teach our young people how to manage it, no matter where you're from. So, there's a hedge fund manager answering these questions from both White, Black, and Hispanic participants about stuff that no one knows about. It was another form of bringing them together, across a lack of knowledge about a very important topic.

Gary Goldberg:

And do the kids at the end of this experience together are like ... I have three kids now in college and I watched them come up through high school with smartphones and stuff like that. And it's amazing how quickly [inaudible 00:37:02] networking, how quickly they connect. I'm assuming they come to this thing and then they leave with a bunch of, I don't know what the right terminology is because I'm 50, but followers or connections or contacts in their cell phones and stuff. Does it just live on beyond the court now, these relationships?

Mike Evans:

That's our goal. That's such an interesting point. What did they leave with? And they don't leave with phone numbers anymore. They leave with Instagram handles. And they'll DM me, direct message me, later. It's so funny. But yeah, they add each other as friends. Just like in Belfast, we're not looking for these kids to kumbaya and live together, right, we're looking for, you see each other on the street, will you at least give each other a nod? If it's a handshake, I think we've been really successful.

Mike Evans:

It's not going to be a Disney story unfolding. We're looking for common respect and common understanding as a starting point. If they come back to a tournament and they say, "We were on the same team last time and we want to be on the same team again," we're ecstatic. That's a humongous win for us. But that's what it looks like from a result standpoint. Or surveys, would you come back? Yes. Did you meet someone who you previously probably would not have met? Yes. Home run for us. That's great. And the community has a brand new court.

Gary Goldberg:

And I think to your earlier point, there's a potential care of community, in the event of the next social political disaster, a sort of deescalation valve. You don't know, it's like ... I grew up in manufacturing. A third generation textile guy and my dad, while I was there hired, this gentleman, his name was Frank [Ninko 00:38:48]. He was in charge of safety for a place that had 1500 employees. He was an absolute mentor to me. He taught me how to communicate to people. After college, I went worked for dad full time. I was just attracted to his style of management, everything about him.

Gary Goldberg:

And everybody was poo-pooing safety because it wasn't fashionable. What was fashionable in a manufacturing environment was how much did you produce yesterday and how much did you sell yesterday? And so Frank came in and he said, "Well, how many accidents happened?" And he said to me something, "Gary, you never know the accident you prevent. You'll never know about it." I thought, "Wow, it's weird. I never thought about that." There's something to be said about Full Court Peace in that you never know the flare up that was prevented because these kids maybe don't hate each other for the reasons that they normally would hate each other had they not had the experience to get to know each other.

Mike Evans:

Right. We cannot hang our hat on stuff that hasn't happened. We can't. It doesn't exist-

Gary Goldberg:

It's hard. But you got to know though, Mike, it's happening, meaning the benefit's there, it has to there.

Mike Evans:

Right. Right. And I think the even more fascinating part is that, instead of parents leading the way to bring their kids together, what we see sometimes is kids come to a camp, parents come to pick them up, the moms start talking to each other. And that's how the kids are going to stay in touch. But it starts with the kids. The kids lead their parents. And that's why we say we bring kids and their communities together, because it starts with kids coming to a court and then lo and behold, moms meet each other. There's been some studies about investments in not-for-profits in Africa. If you want to change a community, you give them the money and the resources to the women, because they'll-

Gary Goldberg:

It's all about the mom.

Mike Evans:

Yeah. They'll do good for the community and we men will find some way to screw it up. So you got to get the mom to meet the mother mom and then stuff really starts to build away from Full Court Peace. But that's exactly right. That example is brilliant.

Gary Goldberg:

Do you get in touch with any of your alumnus? It's not like you have graduation, but do you have one-on-one relationships with any of the kids or any of the coaches involved in the program on a continuous basis, do any of the kids go up or grow up and move on to other things and follow coach Mike at all?

Mike Evans:

Yeah, there's a lot of that. There's a lot of that. There's a lot of networking and informal checking in and stuff like that. But I think the best example of that was, we had five years of Full Court Peace camp before COVID came. In our fifth year, the graduating eighth graders came back, all of them from different communities, and said, "We want to be coaches at camp this year." And they wanted to pass the message back to the fifth graders and say, "I came to this camp in fifth grade. I met this guy in fifth grade and now we're coaches together." That cycle is what we're really looking to build on.

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, you've played an enormous amount of games. You've seen a bunch of tournaments. You've coached a bunch of things. I'm just curious, looking back on all this, what do you think you gained more from the wins or the losses in your journey?

Mike Evans:

Wow, that's a tough question. Unfortunately, I remember more vividly the losses. And I think if you're remembering things and then reflecting on them, you're learning more from those things. I can list the toughest losses. I can also list you the most glorious wins, but the losses constantly remind me of self-improvement. So I think just out of repetition sake of thinking about losses and how much they hurt and wanting to avoid that pain, as coaches say, I'm a high school coach, coaches say, "The losses hurt more than the wins feel good." And they do. So I think to answer directly, it's the losses.

Gary Goldberg:

Mike, your journey and your program obviously speaks itself, but it's an incredible testament and testimony to your, I think quite frankly, your life. It's an amazing thing that you've done. If people want to reach out and help Full Court Peace, who should they call and what's the best way to do it and what's your website and what's your email address and any other contact information that you want to share? Because, certainly at SquadLocker, we want to support your program. And our purpose as a company is to make the lives of coaches and administrators better or easier and freeing up their time. There's the administration of apparel and stuff like that. So they can do the things that you're doing, which is directly invest their time in the young people's lives to make our communities better. So, we want to amplify that any way we can. So we want our listeners and our other customers to reach out to you. How should they do it?

Mike Evans:

The best way to see who we are is our Instagram, which is one word, fullcourtpeace. The best way to get in touch with us is to email us at info@fullcourtpeace.org, which among other addresses is forwarded to mine. To get directly in touch, our website's fullcourtpeace.org. And we are obviously a registered charity. So, all donations are tax deductible. And we hang our hat on the fact that only about 12% of every dollar goes to overhead and the rest goes to the mission, which we plan to improve up to 90%. But of course we do need donations. That keeps us alive. But if people have a bunch of basketballs laying around and they want to ship them to us deflated, we'll put them in the right hands and send them pictures of the kids that get the balls. There are ways to do this, to help us make an impact without having to write a check. There are ways to make legitimate impact that are non-financial for example.

Gary Goldberg:

Awesome. Mike, I can't thank you enough for joining us today and wish you and Full Court Peace all the best in your future endeavors. And it's amazing to hear a story of a great idea that continues to build on itself and affects one player or one child one post at a time. So, thanks so much for being with us today, Mike.

Mike Evans:

Thank you for having me. Total honor. Thank you.

Gary Goldberg:

Awesome buddy.

Announcer:

You've been listening to On The Whistle. For more, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player or visit us at onthewhistle.com.

 


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