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In the Game of Life, They All Proved Winners

August 09, 2003|David A. Lehrer | David A. Lehrer is the president of Community Advocates, a newly formed human relations organization in Los Angeles chaired by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

The van swayed from side to side as we drove west on Ohio's Highway 35. The six 14-year-old girls were singing and bopping to a hip-hop song as we returned from a victorious basketball game. To my surprise, I was enjoying the loud moment as the girls yelled, "Go David, go David." Despite 27 years as the counsel and head of a major civil rights organization in Los Angeles and countless conferences on human relations, I wasn't prepared for what this drive represented.

We were in Ohio for the Amateur Athletic Union national basketball tournament for girls, involving 96 of the best teams from across the country (our team, the Girls Basketball League's Lady Rebels, was one of three teams from the Southland to qualify). But this journey also marked the end of a two-year chapter in the relationship of nine young African American girls and Leah, my Jewish, white 14-year-old daughter, who had become best friends and companions amid the sharing of competition, values, music, boy talk and life experiences.

For me, it was a milestone in my education in human relations.

For many of us in the human relations field, its substance has been reduced to seminars on diversity, courses about the alphabet soup of organizations that dominate the field and enduring politicians pontificating against hate crimes and what is wrong with society, but precious little about the person-to-person contact -- the human interactions -- that ultimately make a difference in how we relate to one another and view each other across racial, ethnic and religious lines.

Our journey into "real world" human relations began in September 2001 when Leah decided that she was serious about basketball and her love for the game. After sampling several teams, Leah and I walked into Rancho Cienega Park in South L.A. one evening to explore the GBL. Leah and I were then (and quite often on other occasions) the only non-African Americans in the gym. Sheri Pegues, the GBL's founder, had heard about Leah from a league parent and invited us to sign up. We didn't know then that we were the first nonblacks to join -- nor did it matter to Leah.

So began an education and amazing journey for us all: getting to know the parents; getting to know the coaches, Andre Evans and Jeff Frazier, who spent hundreds of hours teaching and drilling yet always emphasizing the primacy of academics.

And never in two years of intimate contact was race an issue -- not in the coaching, not in the games, not in how Leah was treated by her teammates, her coaches or her opponents.

In fact, early on, the colorblindness induced by shared interests and the freshness of youth was manifest in a wonderful moment that my wife overheard. Some of the girls had come to practice with their hair in newly braided rolls and suggested to Leah that she might want to do the same. She exasperatingly responded, "How many times do I have to tell you, I 'm w-h-i-t-e, it won't work."

My daughter has slept over at her friends' homes and they at hers. She has been to early morning Sunday church services and they to her bat mitzvah.

Los Angeles is a large and disconnected city; many of us can lead seemingly fulfilled and satisfied lives, never venturing more than a few miles from our homes or offices. In our hermetically sealed cars we rarely encounter or relate to someone we don't know or know about. Few of us take the chance of crossing barriers that our fears have erected -- south of the Santa Monica Freeway or east of the Golden State, for example. Yet sports and the arts offer opportunities to venture out and try something new, to pursue an interest that trumps our built-in hesitations and anxieties.

Each of us can take the step that my daughter did -- the differences of skin color, the location of the gym were irrelevant to her being willing to pursue her passion. How many rewards do we deny ourselves because of our fears?

By the way, the Lady Rebels tied for 17th in the country and was the No. 2 team from the West, the highest-ranked team from California -- we were winners all the way around.

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