Peter Kazickas, who is soon to matriculate at Hamilton College, where he expects to start at a guard position for its basketball team, recently returned from having spent a month in Zimbabwe working with his fellow Amagansetter Mark Crandall’s Hoops 4 Hope program, which, with basketball as its focal point, counsels Zimbabwean and South African youth.
To get there, Kazickas, who just finished up four years at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, Mass., raised $2,500 on his own, most of it derived from a humorous calendar that his fellow students bought, and the rest from donations by alums, the school’s board of trustees, and friends.
Peter, a triplet, along with his brother, Augie, and sister, Annalina, first heard of Hoops 4 Hope and the mentoring work it did when Crandall gave a presentation to his sixth-grade class at the Amagansett School.
“I had an amazing experience there,” said the tall, personable young man during a conversation the other day. “When I told people I was going to Zimbabwe, they said, ‘Uh-oh.’ They’d read about violence there, but I didn’t see any. I’ve never met a group of people so nice and kind and sincere.”
Kazickas stayed at Hoops 4 Hope’s center in Harare with the family of the longtime director, Ngoni Mukukula, who is to receive the organization’s Ubuntu award at Hoops 4 Hope’s fund-raising party at the Sportime tennis club in Amagansett on Saturday.
“Most mornings we’d work around the office,” Kazickas said, when asked about the daily routine, “and then, with some of the all-stars [coaches who had gone through the program] we’d go out to the outlying areas of the city, to a different community each day. There’d be 200 kids for four basketballs, usually at a school. The courts had potholes — you’d never be allowed to play on courts like these in America — some of the rims were falling off, and the metal backboards were rusted. Everyone was barefoot. I know Hoops 4 Hope has been getting a lot of sneaker donations for a while, but the problem now is that it’s very, very expensive to ship them. They’re trying to work out a way to ship them over for free.”
“You see kids playing with one shoe on and one off because they’ve shared the other one with a friend, just so he can feel what it’s like to play in one. . . . But they don’t complain. All they think about is if there’s anything they can do to make you happy. We may share, but we don’t share like they do.”
“I never saw conditions like this,” he continued. “They climb over a dirt wall to get home, most don’t have electricity, and if they do, power outages are common . . . but they come for a few hours to play and have the time of their lives.”
Mukukula told the young Amagansett basketball player that the children there had never seen an American, aside, maybe, from on TV. Never having coached the sport before — though his St. Mark’s team had made the New England preparatory school finals and the club team on which he played in Zimbabwe was a win away from playing in the regional tournament — Kazickas soon found himself doing it, much to his students’ delight, after he had satisfied their curiosity as to whether he could dunk (he could).
“Oh man, they loved it,” the 6-foot-4-inch college freshman said in reply to a question. “Boys and girls — they got into it naturally. I’d go to high-five one kid and 30 would grab my hand. They’d ask me questions — did we play outside in America, did we all have shoes, what were the courts like. They think it’s a dream over here. It is, I guess.”
“You’d break them up into groups of 40 or so, and, because there were so few basketballs, they’d only get to touch the ball for a little bit, but it made them so happy. Everyone waited their turn for a minute maybe of one-on-one, or dribbling back and forth. After they were done playing, there’d be singing and dancing. More fun. Then we’d sit down and talk. There’d be a lecture about staying in school and AIDS awareness. If we had prizes to give out, like a Bridgehampton Killer Bees jersey, or a wristband, or a bag, we’d do that then. A lot of my friends gave me jerseys to bring. It was intense. The kids were so friendly and attentive. After I’d been there a bit, I’d be walking on the streets, and I’d hear, ‘Coach Peter! Coach Peter!’ ”
Before he left, Kazickas used some of the money he’d raised at St. Mark’s to fill in the potholes at the courts in Glenorah, one of Harare’s outlying areas. “You could break an ankle in those potholes — it was something I wanted to get done. Some of the kids had stopped coming because it was too dangerous. I bought the cement and some guys got the sand. We mixed it with water, and several guys who knew about building guided us. The kids helped. Everybody did. We did it on a Saturday and everyone came back Monday. The kids couldn’t believe it. . . . It was a great feeling.”
Asked what he wanted to do in life, Kazickas, who was wearing plaid shorts and an orange Knicks jersey — the Knicks being his favorite team — paused. “That’s a big question. . . . I’ve always been good working with kids. I had a great time in Zimbabwe. My mom has told me that sports and kids would be perfect for me. . . . There are so many needs over there. So much more needs to be done and it’s hard to depend on donations. The kids asked me, ‘When are you coming back? Please come back. . . .’ ”
“I’m definitely going back,” he said. “Hopefully, next summer.”