Helping find hope through hoops

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Peter Kazickas has been more than willing to get his hands -- and feet -- dirty.
Hoops 4 Hope photo

When Peter Kazickas said good-bye to his family in the airport, he had no idea what would await him after the 20-hour flight.

He had been abroad before - on family trips to Lithuania and to go surfing in Costa Rica. But, this time he was on his own and heading to Zimbabwe, an impoverished nation that he didn’t know much about.

It was the summer after his high school graduation and Kazickas had signed up to volunteer with Hoops 4 Hope, an organization that helps children in Africa learn life skills through basketball, and provides a safe and healthy after school activity. He had initially gained an interest in the program after his sister spent a month volunteering in South Africa a few summers earlier.

When he landed in Zimbabwe, Kazickas said, he wasn’t even sure what the man he had been assigned to stay with looked like. Eventually, though, he was greeted by Zimbabwean representatives from Hoops 4 Hope and traveled through the country to his home for the next month. It was then Kazickas encountered a stark contrast.

“My first impressions of the country was that it was definitely a third-world country - an impoverished country,” he said. “But, you would never tell that from the people. You could look at it and tell, but if you were talking to somebody you would not be able to tell they struggled for food daily and they struggled for clothing or shoes or anything else.”

Kazickas is now a junior and tri-captain of the Hamilton men’s basketball team. Since his first trip to Zimbabwe, he returned this past summer to continue the work he started years earlier. The 6-4 forward’s dedication to the cause and the additional work he does in the local community led Hamilton coach Adam Stockwell to nominate him for the National Association of Basketball Coaches and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Allstate Good Works Team.

The nominees consist of 201 players nationwide from all levels of college basketball, who have made positive contributions to their community through volunteering and other service activities. The final team, which will be announced in February, will consist of five players each from Divisions I, II, III and the NAIA.

Stockwell said not only has Kazickas made major contributions to those in need, but his attitude toward community service has rubbed off well on his teammates.

“It helps other guys to see his level of commitment,” Stockwell said. “I don’t know when he sleeps. He may not sleep at all at night. He’s not just going to service events because the department does it or the team does it. He goes because he believes in helping people.”

Though he is committed to helping out in the local community, it’s the young people of Zimbabwe that have had the most lasting impact on Kazickas. The children he worked with were between 5 and 14, and they only had pothole-riddled courts to play on. Kazickas said that after school, the kids would head to the court and take part in basketball drills and activities with the Hoops 4 Hope volunteers, which were then followed by lectures about health and safety.

Kazickas said there were times when the group would consist of about 100 kids, with only three of four basketballs to go around. But what amazed him about the Zimbabwean youth was the positive approach the children had. If they couldn’t play a full game, or even shoot a free throw, Kazickas said the kids were just as happy to join in on a song or dance. He said for these kids, who have lived through such hard times, the opportunity to just have fun was a cathartic experience.

“Hoops 4 Hope is very focused on providing hope to the hopeless,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for the children to not worry about any of the problems in their lives at the moment and come and just have fun, even if it’s just touching the basketball for three or four minutes and taking five shots the entire time. Just being out there and going out and laughing is what’s most important.”

On both of Kazickas’ trips to Zimbabwe, he said, when he wasn’t helping lead after school programs, he spent time working to repair the badly damaged basketball courts in and around Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city. This past summer, though, Kazickas did get to travel, spending a few days camping out near Victoria Falls on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

On his first trip to Zimbabwe, Kazickas was able to land a spot on a team that competed in Zimbabwe’s national tournament. Each team was allowed to have a select number of non-national competitors and Kazickas and his squad spent six hours traveling by bus to the tournament.

He said the level of play in Zimbabwe was strong and physical and took some getting used to. But what surprised him the most was how the crowd becomes a part of the game.

“Whenever something really exciting happens, everyone in the stands runs on the court and starts yelling and dancing,” he said. “The refs just try to keep the game going but everyone’s running around and going out dancing for a few seconds.”

With two trips to Africa in the books, Kazickas said he hopes to return. As a visitor from Long Island, he said basketball had always just been a game and a fun activity before visiting Zimbabwe. But, after seeing how much of a positive influence the sport can be on Zimbabwean children, he said it has opened his eyes to just how big of an impact the sport can have.

“I would definitely encourage anyone interested in going abroad and doing some kind of work to look at Hoops 4 Hope and try to contact someone about getting over there,” he said. “People read about Zimbabwe in the news and it’s always negative stuff, but I haven’t had a single bad experience in two summers over there. It’s such an incredible people in terms of happiness and selflessness. Basketball is so much bigger than just a game and I want to encourage people to remember that.”

Hamilton currently stands at 8-8 and plays Tuesday, Jan. 21, against Elmira before traveling to Williams on Saturday, Jan. 25.

Elmira on the rise

It’s been a wild year so far for the women of the Empire 8. Most preseason predictions pointed toward Ithaca finishing at the top of the conference, but a couple early season losses to ranked teams put the Bombers in a bit of a hole. Meanwhile, Hartwick has posted a 13-3 record which includes a January 3 win over Ithaca.

But flying under the radar, the Soaring Eagles of Elmira have posted a 10-game winning streak, and at 11-2, have not lost a game since November. Elmira is 4­-0 in conference play and during this winning streak, has not allowed an opponent to reach 60 points.

Senior guard Jessica Zoltowski has led the way for the Soaring Eagles, leading the team in both points and rebounds. So far, she has averaged 21.8 points per game and 7.8 rebounds. Her point per game average also leads the conference. Zoltowski has also created opportunities on defense, registering 28 steals. Not far behind are sophomore guard Alex Balara with 25 steals and senior guard Maria Thannhauser, who has 20.

The Soaring Eagles are entering a long stretch of conference play, which begins with a road game on Friday, January 24, against St. John Fisher.

Little East look-in

The Eastern Connecticut State men’s basketball team remains the only Little East team undefeated in conference play. The Warriors earned a couple votes in this week’s top-25 rankings and at 11-4, find themselves in the midst of a heated battle for the top spot in the conference.

Senior guard Brian Salzillo has averaged just under 21 points per game this season and leads the team in steals with 19.

One game behind Eastern Connecticut, Rhode Island college stands at 10­­­­-5 overall and 4-1 in conference play. Western Connecticut and UMass Dartmouth are both 3­-2 in the Little East and stand at 10-4 and 10-5 respectively.

Eastern Connecticut will hit the road for games against Rhode Island College on Saturday, Jan. 25 and Tuesday, Jan. 28 against Western Connecticut.

Milestone in basketball’s birthplace

Springfield’s Naomi Graves earned her 400th career victory as a head coach, which includes her 331 wins in 23 seasons at Springfield. The win came in the team’s January 15 win over Mount Holyoke, which at the time, improved the Pride’s record to 9-5.

Though the Pride has suffered two straight losses since Graves’ milestone victory, Springfield continues to show a strong defensive touch. Six players have registered double-digit numbers in steals, with junior guard Andrea Moschetta leading the way with 30. The Pride has also been strong near the opposing basket with freshman center Ava Adamopoulos and sophomore guard Heather Lewis both registering 19 blocks thus far. Junior forward Jamie Bickelhaupt is not far behind with 17.

View from the top

The northeast looks a bit different this week in its women’s top-25 representation. Amherst has been top dog for most of the season, but a Friday, Jan. 17 on the road against Tufts, dropped the Lord Jeffs from No. 3 to No. 10. Meanwhile, the Jumbos jumped from No. 7 to No. 6 and take over as the region’s top-ranked team.

In handing the Jeffs their first and only loss on the season, Tufts’ Hayley Kanner led all scorers with 18 points, followed by Liz Moynihan, who contributed 17 points and seven rebounds. Tufts, 14-0, returns to action on Wednesday, Jan. 22 at home against Emmanuel.

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Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer in southwest Virginia. Originally from New York, he played Division III basketball in that colder region of the country, but moved to Virginia in 2008 to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing. He has written for multiple publications, including C-VILLE Weekly and The Roanoke Times. He is happy to join for his first season as the Around the East-Northeast columnist.