News: Basketball slam dunk for Djiboutian-American relations
Story by Staff Sgt. Antoinette Gibson
DJIBOUTI, Djibouti - The game of basketball has been bringing Americans and Djiboutians together to promote a friendly rivalry and sportsmanship since April. But for team members from Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier and the Djiboutian public, the cultural exchange and lessons shared on and off the court have been nothing short of a slam dunk.
Every week, games between U.S. men's and women's teams, made up of CJTF-HOA and camp service members, take place at Djibouti University, Djibouti — giving players an opportunity to test their athletic skills and make friends.
“Playing basketball gives us the opportunity to understand each other. In the U.S., we are naturally competitive and passionate about sports and the Djiboutian athletes are the same,” said U.S. Marine Cpl. Andrea “Ace” Arenasvazquez, a CJTF-HOA administrative specialist. “We study the game; they study the game; we understand each other.”
The partnership and collaboration between each country's team begins before a game's opening tip-off. The university's court is roofed, but is partially walled, allowing debris and dust on the court. Players from both teams, with brooms in hand, sweep and clean the court prior to every game.
Despite language barriers between the teams and hot and humid weather, the games are very competitive, as demonstrated during recent games held July 16.
In the women's match-up, hustle and hard-nosed defense kept the score close and fans entertained. It wasn't until the fourth quarter, when Americans made key shots and took advantage of forced errors, enabled them to pull away and close the game with a 38-16 win.
In the men’s game, long-range shots and dunks kept fans on their feet. Point for point, the men battled throughout the contest until a basket in the game’s final seconds gave the Americans a 44-43 win.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. LaNecia Hoover, a CJTF-HOA material management superintendent and member of the women’s basketball team, said the games may be hard-fought, but the focus is not about who scores the most points.
“No matter what the score presents, I believe we are all winners,” Hoover said. “Although we come from different backgrounds, we are still building friendships. We may speak different languages, but when we play basketball, it’s like we are all one. It’s more than a game.”
U.S. Army Cpl. Leonard Whatley, a CJTF-HOA personnel director, played is his first game with the American team July 16. He said he was impressed with the Djiboutians' skill level.
“Games with the Djiboutians are very competitive,” Whatley said, but agreed winning is not his biggest concern. He said through basketball, lasting professional and personal relationships are made.
“The games are important with the Djiboutians because we are doing something we both love and we are building relationships on and off of the court,” Whatley said.
The July 16 game drew a crowd of about 100 locals and U.S. service members, including U.S Navy Capt. Peter Van Stee, Camp Lemonnier commander; U.S. Navy Cmdr. James Kadow, Camp Lemonnier executive officer; U.S. Marine Sgt. Maj. Bonnie Skinner, CJTF-HOA command senior enlisted leader; and U.S. Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Scott Quamme, Camp Lemonnier command senior enlisted leader.
“This was the first game I was able to attend," said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Gerald Hampton, a CJTF-HOA noncommissioned-officer-in-charge of tactical gear issue. "It was nice to see leadership come out supporting the players. It shows that they truly care.”
The American and Djiboutian basketball players hope the weekly games continue.
“Games against the Americans are such an experience," said Habon Ibrahim, a shooting guard for the Djiboutian team. "We come together to play a sport that we both have in common. As always, I look forward to the next chance we get to play together.”