By Doug Gray, Senior Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Former NBA stars Bruce Bowen and Ron Harper were in Rio de Janeiro’s once-notorious Cantagalo favela on Friday, September 24th to mark the opening of a new basketball court as part of the NBA Cares initiative in the recently pacified hillside community.
Underlining the progress that the city has made with its progressive U.P.P (Unidades de Polícia Pacificadora) peace-keeping projects in Rio’s slums since their unveiling last year, they were joined by Consul General Dennis Hearne and forty children aged eight to twelve to inaugurate the new court at the Espaço Criança Esperança community center.
The bullet-punctured walls that line the road up to the center’s entrance are testament to the favela’s recent history, a veritable war zone of rival drug factions and police incursions before the pacification operation two days before Christmas 2009. Friday, however, saw a very different picture of optimism for the inhabitants as the success of Rio’s efforts to clean up the city ahead of the 2016 Olympics continue apace.
Speaking about the center, where the ‘Up With English’ course is also run, along with art, photography and numerous sports programs high above exclusive Ipanema, Mr Hearne, flanked by Harper and Bowen, said; “At this stage of the pacification process you can introduce these things. We want to contribute in our own small way to this wonderful phenomenon that is unraveling here in the city of Rio.”
After his speech the children were allowed to grab one of the brand new Spalding basketballs each and burn off some energy, fizzing around the impressive room and showing off to the NBA stars and TV crews. It is several years since basketball classes have been offered in the community despite the presence of qualified coaches, with the previous courts having fallen in to ruin a little further down the hillside.
Whereas here, near the top of the hillside and just below the tree-filled crest known as ‘Vietnam’ for its maze of underground tunnels dug out by the drug gangs who once ruled the area, the new courts and the center as a whole are shining examples of what can be achieved in these much-maligned favelas.
“This is working and will change the face of the city forever”, Mr Hearne continued. Of the 20,000 locals around 8,000 regularly use the center that is designed to instill qualities such as teamwork, discipline and creativity to increase the future employability of the underprivileged kids. The English classes will also prove invaluable to any of them looking to benefit from the wave of jobs set to appear with the arrival of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.