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Tournament unites athletes near and far

As sports ambassadors, two local basketball players, both 17, will play in Switzerland with teams from around the world.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001

ST. PETERSBURG -- LaShawn Ross and Nick Birdsong live fewer than 10 miles apart, but they have never met.

A basketball tournament 5,000 miles away will bring the 17-year-olds together for the first time.

Ross and Birdsong have been chosen by the People to People Ambassador Sports Group to represent the United States in the Switzerland Invitational, a tournament of youth teams from around the world.

"When my coach told me, I thought someone was playing a trick on me," Ross said. "I absolutely could not believe it."

Said Birdsong: "Everybody wants to do something special, and this is my chance."

People to People was established by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 to improve foreign relations. Former sports ambassadors include golfer Arnold Palmer, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics chairman Peter Ueberroth.

Designated student-athletes choose the tournament they would like to attend, but they have to raise the traveling money themselves. Cost for transportation, accommodations and educational activities range from $2,900 to $4,000.

According to Jeff Thomas, president of People To People Ambassador Programs, athletes will travel to 40 different countries to compete in a variety of sports.

"We think there's three or four benefits ultimately for the participants," Thomas said. "One is clearly just traveling beyond your own borders. Even if you don't play the sport, you get to experience the culture. The other benefit is coming together as a team."

On Aug. 3, American basketball players will attend a three-day training camp in France before the tournament in Switzerland.

"It is different playing against people who don't speak your language," Thomas said. "It's just very different."

This experience will connect Ross and Birdsong when proximity and the game of basketball could not.

According to teammates and coaches, Ross is a tenacious defender who can shut down the opposing team's best player. That isn't bad for someone who didn't even like the game two years ago.

"I used to hate this sport," Ross said.

Dixie Hollins girls head basketball coach Regina Wilkerson persuaded Ross to practice with the team her freshman year to see how she liked it.

Ross loved it.

"I found out I could be aggressive, and it brought out all my energy," Ross said.

Soon, all Ross talked about or did was basketball, at the expense of her grades. Her grade point average dropped to 0.87 (about a D) and forced her to sit out her sophomore year until she improved. Ross used basketball as her motivation to study harder and get better grades.

Just when things were looking up for Ross, her younger brother died April 26, 2000, of a heart condition. "Oh, that traumatized me. I was so broken up after he passed," Ross said.

She said the loss put everything in focus: "I started to live my life like he would have wanted me to. He is with me step by step, walking with me."

Ross, a 5-foot-10-inch center, led Dixie Hollins in rebounding with more than 10 per game and was often the team's motivator. In the classroom, she made the honor roll for the first time.

"LaShawn is a great asset to the team," Wilkerson said. "She is a real leader, and her upbeat attitude is contagious."

Ross spends most of her free time with family members or at her church. She said her grandmother, Catherine Robinson, is the source of her moral values and has been the inspirational force in her life.

"I love my grandma and my family to death, and it is going to be hard being away from them," she said.

The trip to Europe will be Ross' first time out of town without family and her first plane ride. To prepare, Ross has been studying French.

"I am scared right now, but when they put the balls out, I want to go out there and dominate," Ross said.

Birdsong is used to dominating on the basketball court. His bedroom dresser is crowded with trophies from tournaments statewide.

Birdsong, now a 6-foot guard for Osceola High School, won his first trophy as a 9-year-old member of the Winston Park Boys and Girls Club in Tampa. The awards piled up as Birdsong's game developed through play with the Boys Club and Amateur Athletic Union.

"If my team wasn't winning the title game, we were at least in it," Birdsong said. "We lost maybe four games in five years."

His first year at Osceola, the balance of school and basketball proved difficult. And he hated losing.

"I didn't know what a book bag looked like my freshman year, and I was always down on my teammates," Birdsong said. "I wish I could do that year over."

With the help of his mom, Mary, Birdsong learned how to keep his mind on school and deal with a struggling basketball team. He said accepting what was happening on the court and trying to improve on it was the key to his attitude change.

"All you can do is try to play hard," he said.

Birdsong, who plays for the Childs Park Eagles 17-and-under union team, said he has been involved in one sport or another throughout his life. "I guess I am so good at things because I don't quit."

His grades have improved as well. Birdsong now has a GPA of 2.7 and is planning to study journalism in college.

The trip to Switzerland will be Birdsong's first overseas, but he sees it as his chance to shine on the basketball court and grow as a person. From television, Birdsong thinks of France as small cafes, coffee shops and "funny-talking people."

He admits that he will be nervous, but he awaits the chance to play new competition: "People in my neighborhood don't get to have experiences like this. This is my little Olympics."

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