The Iraqi players and staff had received a video message a year ago from Pat Summitt, which had been arranged by Sport 4 Peace, that encouraged them to keep playing organized basketball, a sport they had been denied since 1974 under the regime of Saddam Hussein. The video – which can be viewed here: Iraqi basketball – was filmed during Summitt's summer camps in 2008 and then shown at Iraq's camp for girls.
The camp, which took place in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, was coordinated by Sport 4 Peace and Global Sports Partners. They have been charged by the National Olympic Committee Iraq, the National Olympic Committee Kurdistan and the Iraq Basketball Association to help form a national team for Iraq to prepare the country to compete in the Olympics in women's basketball.
"While we were conducting a clinic for about 60 Iraqi youth Pat Summitt gave us a few basketballs but, most importantly, sent a videotaped message encouraging these girls to continue to pursue their dreams in basketball, to overcome their fears and to become strong young women," Hillyer said.
"So during one day of camp we spread the girls out all over the gymnasium, we gave them 4x6 blank note cards, and we said, ‘Please write down your biggest dream.' We gathered all of the cards and all of the kids, all 60, said, ‘My dream is to visit the United States of America, to attend a WNBA game and to meet Coach Pat Summitt and tell her thank you for the video and the basketballs that she has sent to us and the message.' "
That came true this week for 10 girls ages 14 to 16 – Shan, Hanan, Mariana, Domara, Shnian, Marnah, Daria, Romrama, Zhilwan and Ragash – and three coaches, Rizgar, Khoshee and Shamam. Only their first names are being used for security reasons and for personal safety.
Five of the girls are from a basketball school formed by American consultant Deb Packwood, who is part of Global Sports Partners and had been working on physical education programs in Pakistan when the opportunity in Iraq arose.
"This week being on the court they're learning what basketball is really about in America," said Packwood, who came to Tennessee with three members of her staff in Rizgar, Khoshee and Shamam. "The competition level here is a lot higher than it is in Iraq."
The team and coaches arrived in the United States on June 3 and traveled to the nation's capital. They attended last Sunday's game between the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream and met the WNBA players. The trip, which was sponsored by Sport 4 Peace/Global Sports Partners and SportsUnited, the international sports programming initiative of the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, continued on to Knoxville, where the team arrived Tuesday for Tennessee's camp.
They were met by local church members with a "Welcome to Tennessee" sign that had Iraqi and Kurdish flags attached, according to the updates that can be read at: Sport 4 Peace Daily.
The U.S. State Department's Beth Fine was also in Knoxville to represent SportsUnited, a government outreach program that focuses on how "sports and success there can lead to success in other life areas, academics being one of them," Fine said. The State Department arranged for the international travel and has ensured that the young girls have been able to call home while in this country.
A press conference was held Thursday with area media that included the team, coaches, Fine, Hillyer and Summitt at the HPER building on the UT campus.
Pat Summitt and Sarah Hillyer.
Lady Vol Associate Head Coach Holly Warlick also attended and after the press conference Summitt led the Iraqi team in singing "Happy Birthday" to Warlick, who turned 51.
"I've been given a lot of credit for what's happened, and it's really not about me," Summitt said. "From our office Holly stepped up, and she said, ‘We need to do this,' and when she told me what it was about I was really excited. I can't believe you all are here."
The players sat in front of the tables during the press conference and smiled throughout much of the session.
"Are you having fun?" Summitt asked to a chorus of yeses.
"Are you competing?" she asked, and again the yeses.
Summitt opened the sessions Wednesday in the tennis complex with a welcome to all campers and their parents. Hillyer said that when Summitt mentioned that one group was from Iraq, several people looked puzzled and thought they misheard the coach.
But Rizgar stood with the team, thanked the crowd for the chance to come to Tennessee and said, "My name is Rizgar, we are from Iraq. Thank you - we are honored to be here and God bless you all," according to Hillyer.
"The place went nuts," Hillyer said. "For them to be embraced like that by Americans, it rocked their world. It was so cool."
"I think a lot of people got chills just to see the reaction and how special it was," Summitt said. "They were pretty excited, too. It was really neat. I know they've met a lot of new friends here, too."
The week has been spent working on basketball skills and taking in the local attractions in East Tennessee, including a trip to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and a picnic in the Smokies and the sampling of different foods, including quesadillas. They also are visiting local homes for dinner and entertainment.
"It's been a great experience, especially for basketball, because we came here to enjoy the camp and to enjoy the teams here," said the 15-year-old Romrama in fluent English.
The Iraqi team split a pair of games Thursday and was elated with the first victory.
"It was so exciting because we are here in America, and we are doing a good job," Romrama said. "I am proud of my team because they helped me so much."
She added that the people at the camp and in the community have been supportive of the team.
"It means a lot," Romrama said. "We've never had a chance to come here and to enjoy the camp, especially this camp, this coach. She is a great coach. That will be great for us. We feel great. We feel like people here love us and they all support us, and we thank them."
Rizgar repeatedly use the word dream to sum up his feelings about being in the United States.
"I would like to thank Pat Summitt for this opportunity," Rizgar said. "It feels like a dream for us to be here and to share with other players and coaches our (experiences). I would like to thank her personally. It is just like a dream for me. I still cannot believe I am here and speaking with you guys. My players are playing on the courts in America. It is just like a dream. I hope that this continues and goes on."
Summitt has had many profound and poignant moments in her three-and-a-half decades of coaching, and the attendance at her camp by teenage Iraqi girls will be a special memory.
"It's very touching," Summitt said. "For us it's really special. They have been full of energy and I can feel their excitement for them to come here and compete and hopefully learn more about the United States and us learn more about them and their background and their culture.
"The one thing from my standpoint and from our staff is to give these young girls an opportunity to see the opportunities we have here in the States for young girls and young women and hopefully teach them valuable life skills through the game of basketball. That's been a big part of what I wanted to do from the time I came here to coach is empower young girls and young women to be confident and to know that, ‘You can do anything that you put your mind to doing.' When we introduced all the teams, they got an ovation. Everyone was so excited, and it's just a real treat to host the team. I appreciate you being here. We now have new friends."
Summitt also has watched some of their sessions – the camps are attended by dozens of teams and girls at multiple campus locations – and she paid the Iraqi players a compliment.
"They have not stepped back once from competing," Summitt said. "I like that. Matter of fact they were running over people on the first day they got on the court. They're aggressive, Coach, did you teach them that?"
"Yes, they're starting to be," Rizgar said.
Rizgar said the players struggled Wednesday, so they met "and we tried to be more confident, and we tried to be more motivated," and they fixed "some difficulties with connections with the players and the coaches."
He went on to explain that the female coaches on the staff were able to direct the team on the court.
"I can say it's like a dream," Rizgar said. "An Iraqi coach, she is a girl, and she leads a team in America. It is a new thing for us, so this was wonderful.
"As basketball player before and now a coach I realize that going to Pat Summitt's camp will be a dream for anyone in their world. I was trying to shake myself and see if it's a dream or the real thing."
Summitt again deflected credit for the assembly of the team at her camp and instead lauded the organizations responsible for the trip.
"I think right here is a great example of what can happen when people come together and work towards a common goal to make this happen for these young women to come to our camp," Summitt said. "To me that is part of what our university is all about and especially with our basketball program. I love being at summer camp. I don't know many coaches that would tell you that, but I love it. You get to see all these young girls and come learn how to play together and work together as a team and also interact with people from all over the country.
"We have people here from coast to coast and now from Iraq. It's been great to see how all the other teams have wanted to be a part and interact with their team. It's been fun to watch it and be a part of it. I am not taking any responsibility for this because all the people around me made this happen."
Summitt also saw a benefit to her current Lady Vol team – the returning players are allowed to work at the camp and have interacted with the Iraqi girls.
"I haven't been in the dorm with them – I would have to ask Daedra (Charles-Furlow) – but I would think, yes, absolutely, because they are interacting in the gyms all the time," Summitt said. "They've had a lot of time to be with them."
Hillyer added, "As we've gone from gym to gym to play our games the UT players who are in the gymnasiums have asked lots of really great questions, and they really want to know about where they've come from, what is their culture like, what is basketball like, what does this mean to them. They have really embraced the whole idea and have wanted to encourage the girls. In fact Glory Johnson pulled a couple aside and was showing some jump shot techniques and was helping a couple of them."
Could the experience make the Tennessee players appreciate more what they have in this country?
"Absolutely," Summitt said. "I think they are fully aware of how blessed they have been and then to be able to work with these young girls and to learn about their culture and the differences and to sit down and spend time with them. That's something they have in the dorms that I think they have taken advantage of."
The players handled one-on-one interviews with members of the media and laughed about some of the new foods they had tried.
"Your food is really delicious, but the problem is you don't have rice," the 14-year-old Shnian teased though the interpreter/coach, Khoshee.
Shnian, a point guard, never let go of a Baden basketball during her interview and wore adidas shoes, orange shorts, a Lady Vol T-shirt, orange wristbands and an orange bandana. When told she looked like a ballplayer, she laughed and said "Thank you very much" through the interpreter.
Packwood, who played college basketball at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkansas, grew up in South America, has family living in Texas and spent the past five years in Pakistan before going to Iraq to help oversee the Olympic initiative.
"I somewhat understand cultural shock traveling back and forth between different countries but for them I know it's heightened in a sense," said Packwood, who noted the players have noticed the overall cleanliness of the area and the lack of dust and mud on the roadways. "They are adjusting to the food. We don't have rice at every meal in America. They have adjusted very well."
"Everything is different, but we would like to try everything," Khoshee said of the food in the United States.
The players did not know Summitt until the videotape arrived a year ago but have since become familiar with the legendary coach and the Lady Vol program.
"We wanted to learn more lessons from her basketball camp," Khoshee said.
"It's pretty amazing," Packwood said. "For them to be able to come here and meet her in person it's huge. They're realizing what basketball really is. It's pretty neat for the girls to realize that."
"It's just like a dream came true," Khoshee said. "We learned the basic skills of basketball and the fundamentals. We can use it in our country to improve basketball."
"I see a lot of improvement in them," Rizgar said. "I see a lot of growth. Their mechanics are improving day by day and their skills. It's a great opportunity for them to be here in this country.
"I think it will be a great experience for them when they go back because they will memorize all the things and it will be like memorizing a beautiful dream and they will memorize it for people in Iraq."
Basketball also is a step towards normalcy for the country, which was ravaged by war during the invasion by the United States and its allies in 2003 and then civil strife in the aftermath. Organizations such as Sport 4 Peace, which sees sports as a foundation for peace, can step into that void and promote healing.
"Basketball helps us to go through this in Iraq because we've been playing and we never think about something else outside basketball," Romrama said. "We have so many teams in Iraq and basketball every year becomes more and more experienced."
Romrama will return to Iraq with an armload of T-shirts and hats and stories to tell.
"Going to the WNBA game it was great," Romrama said. "I will go and tell my friends that I see a lot of famous players and I will tell them about my experience here. I will help them with things I learn here."
Sport 4 Peace – the other co-founder is UT doctoral student Ashleigh Huffman – will return to Iraq in July 2009 to conduct its second annual basketball camp for girls, women and coaches.
The girls who came to the United States were selected from regions in Northern and Southern Iraq and are of various religious backgrounds in a nod to the need to unite their country.
"We didn't want the kids to know each other," Hillyer said. "We wanted even to bring the Iraqis together. The selection process was up to Deb Packwood and Rizgar to identify girls who had strong leadership qualities, who had good attitudes and who would not just take this experience for themselves but rather take this experience, go back to their local community and share and to empower young girls there to become better basketball players.
"We really see this as a whole Iraq project. These will be the new leaders of the basketball movement in Iraq."