SALT LAKE CITY -- It's a kid’s dream to play basketball with NBA players - and more than 100 kids got that opportunity last week. But, these aren't your everyday kids— all of them are refugees from different countries in Africa.
"There are 50-plus thousand refugees in our state alone - a lot of them right here in the Salt Lake Valley," said former Jazz player Thurl Bailey.
Bailey was named Utah's Refugee Ambassador by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this year; he is to be the eyes and ears for the governor when it comes to the refugee population.
During the Jazz Refugee Basketball Clinic, the kids were taken through stretches, skill developments and strength and conditioning sessions. The sessions helped the boys who are looking to improve their skills - and Jazz big men Enes Kanter and Rudy Gobert were happy to assist.
Ali Mberwua, 14, was one of the refugee children who attended, and he said he loved it.
"My experience with the Jazz players was wonderful, I love basketball,” Ali said. “Right now I am playing for the AAU Super league, and it was nice. It helped me a lot.”
Jazz Center Rudy Govert said he was glad to be involved.
"When I was a kid, I would have loved to come and meet NBA players, so I think they are very happy and it's cool," he said.
Jazz Center Enes Kanter agreed.
"I just love being out there with the kids and stuff, it's so much fun," he said.
Even though the day was centered around having fun and practicing, Bailey wanted to make it clear that this program is about more than just basketball.
"One of the biggest needs are with the children,” he said. “The children who, whatever age they come over, are looking for something. It's either going to be positive or negative. You are either going to give them something to occupy their time on the positive side or they are going to go searching for something that may not be positive.”
Program Director Danielle Alcala echoed Bailey's sentiment.
"One of our big emphases is gang intervention and prevention to get them out of gangs and drugs and violence and things like that," she said.
Alcala became involved with the refugee program "Because He First Loves Us" after what she says was a calling from a higher power.
"God laid it on my heart,” she said. “I have always had a heart for Africa and Africans and then he brought Africa right to my doorstep and it was a perfect fit."
Their program now helps 39 refugee families in the Salt Lake Valley. Being able to bring her kids to a Jazz training clinic, Alcala said it will help them develop more than just skills in basketball.
"For them to come to something like this, especially with the guys that are helping today, cause they are not from America, to say, ‘Hey yeah. I can do this, I can make it, I can be successful at this,’" she said.
Bailey said it helps that Gobert and Kanter can give their time, because they have an understanding of what it is like to come from another country. Both Gobert and Kanter are from different countries - Gobert from France - and Kanter from Turkey.
"It's for these kids to come in and just have a positive experience,” Bailey said. “Enos Kanter and Rudy Gobert have given up their time because they understand what platform they have to be able to come and give back.”
"It's always good to help some kids from other countries especially, so it feels good," Gobert said.
"It's so hard to come and change cities and play basketball in a new culture and everything, it's so different, but when you are out there, when you are playing basketball, you just forget about everything," Kanter said.
The clinic was a success at the end of the day - and the success did not come from basketball.
"It's refreshing to see the smiles on these kids’ faces, if only for an hour, but it does a lot for us, but hopefully more for them," Bailey said.
If you would like to learn more about "Because He First Loved Us", head over to their Facebook page for more information.