A GLOBAL citizen, Pierre Johannessen grew up moving around the world with his Norwegian father and Iranian mother, “along the way picking up an American accent, a French name, a Fijian disposition and a love of all languages, not to mention a European appreciation of food”, according to his rather flattering Wikipedia page.
Over the past five years, he’s established and run an international non-profit group called the Big Bang Ballers, which explains the flattering Wikipedia page, and his being named ACT Young Australian of the Year in 2010.
“We use basketball to fight youth poverty and social disadvantage, and that’s a big way of saying we basically just play basketball with kids,” he explains, sitting in his office at Isaacs shops, where he and his mother run a small law firm.
“It’s a tool we can use to teach kids about their surroundings. In basketball, if you don’t look after the people around you, you’re not going to be successful. It’s that simple. It’s not a man-on-man game, it’s not a one-person game; you can be the best player on the planet, but without a good team, you’re not going to win.”
He traces the simple idea back to late 2007, when he was shooting hoops in Bangladesh with a couple of French expats and a local guy. He was in the country working with Habitat for Humanity through the Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development program.
“You can do it with anything – you can do it with music, you can do it with arts – it just so happened that basketball was what we knew at the time,” he says.
Now, there are independent Big Bang Ballers teams in 11 countries, and close to 40,000 disadvantaged youths have been through their programs.
“Every country is responsible for their own cash,” Pierre explains. “We’re big on not having aid dependence – people just sending money from overseas and that’s the end of the story – so in every country that we’re in, we set up a team, and that team is responsible for organising tournaments and camps, going to schools and orphanages and providing them with the support they need through funding, materials or whatever. A big part of that is raising the money in-house.”
The value of “helping people help themselves” was instilled in Pierre by his parents, both of whom worked for the UN High Commission on Refugees. When we meet him, he had just come back from helping set up the newest Big Bang Ballers team in Senegal, which will now mostly run itself.
“What we do in each country is never the same,” he says. “We have parallels – like we support schools and orphanages in every country and we always have a basketball team – but there are 29 individual programs to choose from; it all depends on what each country needs.”
Here in Canberra, the Big Bang Ballers run a program for the young inmates at Bimberi Youth Detention Centre, and another called Night Hoops, which recently won a $48,850 “Diversity and Social Cohesion” grant from the Federal Government.
“It’s really basic, we open up the basketball court on a Saturday night and get in kids – usually it’s a mix between street kids and kids who just love basketball – and give them somewhere safe and warm and secure to play basketball for like four, five hours a night,” says Pierre, adding that they also provide food to eat and to take away.
“When we started we had, I think, 16 kids that were homeless. Over the course of the last two years we’ve managed to get every single one of them into housing, and some into tertiary or secondary education.
“We’ve got new migrants, we’ve got at-risk kids and we’ve got the AFP heavily involved, too. After the first year [the police] were coming in and telling us these were the same kids who were hanging out in the parking lot of Belconnen Mall and just, like, throwing rocks at people.
“Now that relationship’s improved a lot as well; at the beginning we had a lot of the new migrant kids and the refugee kids who were really anti-police.”
In the detention centre, he says, the basketball has helped troubled youngsters open up, learn to deal with conflict and have respect for the opposite sex – something Pierre sees as a positive step in any society.
“Immediately the guys are like, ‘I don’t wanna play with the girls’, but we’ve gotten that everywhere we’ve been. We did the first mixed tournament and the first mixed teams in Bangladesh. Same thing in Senegal, which hadn’t really happened before; same thing in Uganda, too. Wherever we can we try and break down those barriers.”