Sean Tuohey said he was scared to use his real name the first time he went to coach basketball at a middle school in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The schoolchildren were Protestant, and the name "Sean" is a traditionally Irish Catholic name.
Tuohey instead chose to go by the more Anglicized version of his first name, introducing himself throughout the afternoon as "John Tuohey."
"I was worried," Tuohey said, "that the kids would know right away that I was a Catholic with a name like Sean. And I didn't think they'd give me a chance if they knew."
Such are the lessons Tuohey, 26, has learned in his chosen field of work. His work is to get Catholic and Protestant children in Northern Ireland to play together and to get black and white children in South Africa to play together. Basketball is his method.
He works for "Playing for Peace," a non-profit organization he founded in December 2000 and based in Washington. Roughly 10,000 children in South Africa and 2,000 in Northern Ireland have participated in "Playing for Peace" clinics and tournaments.
The organization has 55 employees, including Tuohey's two brothers. Brendan, 29, is the executive director, and Devin, 24, is one of five American coaches in Northern Ireland. All three are District natives and graduates of Gonzaga High.
Brendan Tuohey calls Playing for Peace a "basketball Peace Corps" because it provides a way to unite people of different races or backgrounds, a quality some other sports don't share. Tuohey said that in South Africa, for example, whites primarily play cricket and rugby and blacks primarily play soccer.
"Basketball is the perfect vehicle because of its origins," Frankie O'Loane, a youth coach in Northern Ireland, said via e-mail. "We adopted a proactive anti-sectarian approach and have received a tremendous boost from 'Playing for Peace.' The cultural labels attached to some sports are widely acknowledged. Basketball offers an alternative sport that belongs to no community.
"Their [the PFP coaches'] expertise, enthusiasm and dedication has impressed all who have come into contact with them. The impact has been very obvious with the numbers who attend the community sites' programmes out of school hours and the interaction between the young people. Hopefully, their efforts will lay the foundations for further development of the program and ensure that basketball develops with no cultural or social labels."
Playing for Peace's board of directors includes San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Kerr and author John Feinstein, a former Washington Post staff writer. It counts the NBA, which gave $3,000 to help build outdoor courts in South Africa, among its donors.
Although the NBA was not in Sean Tuohey's plans after he finished his playing career at Catholic University in 1999, he was intent on playing professional basketball. Shortly after college graduation, he earned a spot in a professional league in Northern Ireland. The games weren't as competitive as he was accustomed; teammates smoked cigarettes at halftime, and one game was interrupted when a dog ran on the court.
During his first season, Tuohey met a group of people who were trying to get young Catholics and Protestants to play the sport together. That relationship led to a meeting with a South African police chief who was visiting Belfast. He asked Tuohey to do similar work with blacks and whites in South Africa, and Tuohey accepted the invitation.
Tuohey spends about eight months a year traveling to the two countries, and he keeps an apartment in South Africa.
Some days are better than others. One day, Tuohey found his car had been broken into, and a new pair of sneakers had been stolen. The next day, one of the kids at a clinic was wearing them.
There are angry phone calls and questions from parents. Clinics often begin with white children laughing and playing among themselves on one court. Nearby, black children laugh and play among themselves.
The separation is accepted to a point, then the coaches mix teams for drills or scrimmages.
"I was definitely nervous in the beginning," Devin Tuohey said. "When you are put into an unfamiliar environment, especially one in which all you really know about the current situation is the negative stuff you see on the news, it kind of scares you.
"None of us knew whether or not the first time we brought the kids together if it would end up in a riot."
One of the workers in South Africa told Sean Tuohey that, a few years earlier, he had watched soldiers drag his brother outside the family's house and shoot him in the head. Another, who is nearly seven feet tall, said he had been contacted by scouts from America to come and play basketball. They told him to meet them on an appointed date.
The date arrived, but the scouts never did.
"You should see the house this guy lives in," Tuohey said. "I mean, it's tiny. He has to duck down just to get inside. And he's in there with all kinds of brothers and sisters and cousins; there's kids everywhere. I asked him once if it wasn't too crowded, and he said it was all right because he always had someone to talk to.
"The people working with us are amazing. I swear the next Nelson Mandela is working for us somewhere."
Tuohey adds what he can to this landscape. This usually boils down to his energy and his fund-raising efforts. Playing for Peace began through contributions he solicited from 40 of his parents' friends, and since then the organization has raised $250,000. Its budget for 2004 is $630,000.
"Playing for Peace is pretty much all Sean talks about," Devin Tuohey said. "It can get annoying sometimes when you're with someone who talks about the same thing all the time. But it also means he's really driven."
Many of Playing for Peace's coaches have been trained in conflict resolution, inclusion training and teamwork at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Once they arrive on site, they usually introduce themselves to the school principal or physical education teachers and offer to coach basketball, for free, in PE or after-school programs. On weekends, they gather the children for drills and games.
"When I first met Sean, I was a little skeptical," Myles Delport, a basketball coach in South Africa, said via e-mail. "But my best experience was at their first tournament, seeing the hordes of kids playing ball for the first time. I noticed they were not worried about who they were playing with.
"There were blacks and whites, mixing freely. That is something that does not happen often in this country."