When I board a plane and leave Cyprus tomorrow, I will have been in Cyprus for exactly 800 days. (Yes, I counted.) When I think about 800 it sounds like a lot. A lot of hot summer days walking around Lefkosia’s old city, and a lot of cold winter nights in the mountains of Agros. A lot of afternoons playing pick-up, and a lot of mornings discussing politics over Frappe. A lot of delicious souvla dinners and a lot of stomachaches the next morning.
But most memorable of all, there were A LOT of wild little kids (also known as Barbie’s or gorillas depending on the practice). There was Galatia, whose leadership and enthusiasm greatly surpassed her age, and Sultan the terminator (a nickname that came from her constant fouling), and super tall Alexi, who during the 2011 Summer League broke a backboard in half while trying to dunk. But there was also little Theodora, whose straight black bangs always fell into her eyes as she yelled my name over and over from her school’s balcony. Even though she had to grow up in a harsh environment in Limassol, with a single mother to raise her and her three siblings, Theodora somehow always had a smile on her face big enough to brighten anyone’s day.
And there were Coach Sevki’s kids, Cetin and his younger sister Sevilay, who would always greet me with a big hug after I made the long drive from Nicosia to Iskele. Sevilay, now 11 years old, just started practicing with PeacePlayers, while Cetin, who graduated from PPI-CY’s normal programming this year, will now go on to be part of PPI-CY’s Leadership Development Program. After practice I would often go back to Sevki’s house and play in the family garden with Sevilay, picking artichokes or playing with their chickens. Later I would relax on the couch and play Cetin at some NBA2K7, which I always won. And even though Cetin is a die-hard Celtics fan, I’ll cut him a little slack.
Then there are the English School boys: Fuat, Onat, Aral, Tunc and Omac; a group of Turkish-Cypriot boys who I’ve watched grow up before my eyes. (Omac by about 2 feet!) Those boys live for basketball and after coaching them on a PeacePlayers team for two years, they all went on to play in competitive youth leagues. When I told them I was leaving, they challenged Gunnar and me to a final game, thinking that now that they have grown, maybe they could finally beat us. Although I was impressed by their improved skills, they are actually really good for 14 year olds, we had to put them in their place. After all, the next time I see them they probably will put me in mine.
But most of all, I will miss my Lapta girls: Aysel, Canan, Cemre, Murude and Hilal (who I call the mamba, in honor of our favorite NBA player). The very first practice I ever went to back in March of 2010 was in Lapta. Even though back then they were the smallest on the team, their spirit made them stand out. Since then, I spent countless days coaching them, and it wasn’t always pleasant. Often times their crazy energy combined with their lack of English made coaching really frustrating. But over time I became very close to those girls, watching them mature to become better basketball players as well as more savvy young women. My highlight with the Lapta girls had to be the summer camp last July, when most of them were on my team: The Yellow Sun Girls. During the camp we had the opportunity to spend several days together, playing, learning and becoming better friends.
Last week, at the end of our final practice, I gathered the Lapta girls around and in my simple Turkish I announced my final departure. “Girls, today I am very sad, today will be my final practice with you,” but as soon as they realized what I was saying tears began streaming down their faces. As a lump formed in my throat, a tried to explain to them that it was time for me to return to my home in America, but how happy I was that I had the chance to be their coach and their friend. I gave them all hugs and encouraged them to continue playing basketball because one day I will return and I want to see them make their left handed layups!
Indeed after 800 days being in Cyprus, what will stay with me most of all are the kids. Being part of the kids’ lives during these years has been a great opportunity for me, one that I will cherish forever. I have to thank PeacePlayers for giving me the chance to meet so many amazing people while making positive change in the world. No matter where I go next, I will take the friendships I made in Cyprus with me.