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Ex-College Hoopster Helping Africans With HIV/AIDS
 
 
  By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
 
WASHINGTON (AP; 6/17/05) - Stephan Bekale left his home in Gabon with a teenager's dreams of a U.S. college education and a career in the sport he loved, basketball.
 
But his personal game plan changed when his parents, back home in their country on Africa's west coast, died a few years later, just months apart. AIDS had stolen them both.
 
With grief as a coach, the 6-foot-9 forward went on the offensive to spare others a similar fate. Bekale (pronounced beh-CAH'-lay) set aside his dream of NBA stardom and created Hoops4Africa, to use the star power of American hoopsters to spread the message of AIDS prevention to Africa's youth. ``You can touch kids through basketball,'' the 26-year-old Alexandria, Va., resident said in an interview.
 
Bekale should know.
 
Not long ago, he was a teenager in Africa, wishing he could ``be like Mike'' - Michael Jordan - and idolizing such other stars of the hard court as Charles Barkley and David Robinson.
 
Now he spends his days and nights networking and raising money to fly 10 athletes, five each from the NBA and WNBA, to Kenya for a week in September to talk to schoolchildren of all ages about HIV/AIDS. Visits to AIDS orphanages also are on the schedule.
 
It won't all be sober talk, though. Basketball clinics are planned to teach the children how to shoot, dribble and maneuver on court for their own games, as well as sightseeing trips.
 
``Our main focus is to get the information out on AIDS and how deadly the virus is and our means of doing that is through basketball,'' said Washington Wizards forward Michael Ruffin, one of the 10.
 
``Hopefully by reaching the children they'll go home and talk to their parents a little bit and tell their parents about it,'' added the 6-foot-8 Ruffin, a father of four.
 
AIDS has had a devastating effect on sub-Saharan Africa, where more than half the world's HIV-infected people live. Millions in the region have died of the disease since the epidemic began, including 2.3 million last year, according to United Nations statistics.
 
Bekale was a lanky 15-year-old when he landed in New York in 1995 after scraping together enough money for the plane trip that would bring him closer to pursuing his life's goal.
 
But he was stranded at Kennedy Airport when a friend's offer of lodging fell through. To get by, Bekale said, he lived with other Africans in Brooklyn, N.Y., and peddled knockoff watches before coming to Washington, where a family took him in and sent him to high school in the Virginia suburbs.
 
He left for Penn State on a basketball scholarship in fall 1998. His parents died not long after he started classes - his father the following June and his mother in March 2000.
 
After earning a bachelor's degree in business administration in 2002, Bekale focused on creating Hoops4Africa, a follow-up to his efforts while in school to help improve the quality of life in Africa.
 
In college, he sent his teammates' used basketball shoes to Gabon for the players there. Bekale also raised several thousand dollars to help provide clean drinking water in his native Tchibanga.
 
Hoops4Africa is partnering with the Land O'Lakes dairy company, which works with farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The company has a regional office in Kenya and is helping Bekale with logistics on the ground, said Tom Verdoorn, a vice president of the Arden Hills, Minn.-based company.
 
Land O'Lakes will supplement Hoops4Africa's message about HIV/AIDS prevention with a pointer of its own about the importance of good nutrition - including milk and other dairy products.
 
``Getting the right kinds of nutrition into people afflicted with the HIV/AIDS virus is a very important component of their well-being,'' Verdoorn said in an interview.
 
What Bekale is trying to accomplish is not unique. Celebrities often help raise awareness about AIDS, other illnesses and charitable causes. But knowing firsthand how young Africans admire American basketball players, Bekale and his supporters say what he is trying to do can save lives.
 
``The (AIDS) problem is so enormous. It's a pandemic,'' said Rep. Donald Payne, D-N.J., an Africa advocate who helped Hoops4Africa qualify for tax-exempt status. ``I think that there's room for many organizations to spring up and try and get the word out to young people.''
 
On the Net:
 
Hoops4Africa: http://www.hoops4africa.org
 
United Nations Joint Program on AIDS: http://www.unaids.org
 
 
 
 
 
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