Live your dreams!" is the message being put across to Edinburgh and Midlothian pupils by members of the Edinburgh Rocks, the only Scottish team in the British Basketball League.
Since August, the Rocks have been working with 22 secondary and 22 primary schools in Edinburgh and Midlothian, involving over 60 school visits, to promote a healthy lifestyle, funded by the Scotland Against Drugs Challenge Fund. SAD has just been awarded pound;4.5 million over the next three years by the Scottish Executive, an increase of pound;0.5 million which will enable it to expand its education and other programmes, and schools and community groups are invited to apply for the new financial year.
Visits from the Rocks average two to five hours with team members coaching S1 and S2 boys and girls in basketball skills, organising games and speaking informally to the pupils about healthy diets, exercise and the dangers of tobacco, alcohol and drug misuse.
It fits well with the "holistic" approach to drug education now favoured by SAD under its director Alastair Ramsay who jettisoned the "Just Say No" approach which, it was perceived, young people were not responding to.
"I make a difference! Yeah, I do!" says Rocks' player Chris Webber.
You don't argue with the Canadian, for two reasons. One, you've just watched him coach, have fun with, and rap with an S1 PE class, getting his points over with humour, clarity and honesty. And two, he's six foot nine.
"The kids love to make fun of my big feet, my height and my accent," he says. "But you use anything to grab their attention. Then you share knowledge. You don't preach."
At the gather-round after the training session, Chris uses question and response to raise drugs awareness and self-esteem, telling pupils he is travelling the world, living his dream as a professional basketball player:
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it. You can. Who can make your goals happen? Only you."
His approach is his own, but he uses background information and materials supplied by SAD.
And he knows his Scottish diet: "You know what a black pudding looks like? Well, that's what your lungs look like after five or 10 years smoking. If you put junk in your body, you get junk out."
He tells the pupils it's unlikely a stranger will try to introduce them to drugs. "It's going to be a family member or a friend. They'll laugh at you if you don't take it. But if they laugh at you, are they really friends?" Chris says he bases his approach on his own experience at high school and college. "The speech I give is what I believe and they're maybe more receptive to us as sportsmen than they might be to teachers or parents. It's the same message that was given me.
"I find it really fulfilling. My parents were both teachers and I love working with kids. You can light up their eyes. When I finish as a professional, I'll probably coach at a university and train to teach. Next to basketball it's the thing that makes me feel good."
After a successful pilot project involving fourGlasgow schools in 1999-2000, Rocks' director Ian Reid successfully bid for enhanced SAD funding.
"SAD gives the funds to the local authorities and we match that funding - in Edinburgh's case pound;26,100 - with in-kind contributions of tickets for our games," says Mr Reid. "The logic is that the pupils pick up on a message when the guys go into the schools, and then they come and see them play as a fit and healthy outfit. So, it promotes the team and the sport.
"We also have a Rocks Against Racism programme as we have both black and white players, and we got involved in the Kosovo Appeal because we have Christians and Muslims in the team.
"But in this project, SAD cash pays for the school visits, so the local authorities get a free campaign and we have an extra 50 or 60 kids at our games to boost an average crowd of 1,000."
The pilot project was evaluated by the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE) in January last year, a positive evaluation which helped Edinburgh Rocks to secure enhanced funding from SAD. This SCRE report is now being used by another British basketball team, the Birmingham Bullets, to demonstrate that sports professionals can go into schools and make a difference. The Bullets are running an anti-smoking campaign. In the SCRE report, 93 per cent of the S2 pupils involved saw the programme as relevant and useful to their lives, saying the main impact was on their life-goals and aspirations; 55 per cent were positive about its impact on aspects of their health; and 76 per cent felt the programme would help other young people stay healthy and avoid illegal drugs.
"We go in and say 'lead a healthy life', rather than saying we know all about drugs," says Ian Reid. "It's about playing out your dreams."
With that in mind, Edinburgh Rocks can place promising Scottish youngsters in American universities on basketball scholarships. Their own player coach, Iain "The Bull" MacLean, who is the present Scotland captain, went to Arizona State University.
Mr Reid is convinced the Rocks' message is getting through. He intends to apply for SAD funding for next year to extend the programme further and is hoping to attract a business sponsor as well.
"I've been involved in sport for years and this is one of the best projects you could get involved in. For me, it makes running the basketball team worthwhile."
SAD is now in discussion with the Scottish Football Association and senior Scottish clubs to encourage them to do something along similar lines to the Rocks' model of good practice, SAD's director Alastair Ramsay says. It also wants senior clubs to develop policies for dealing with drug related incidents (as happened recently at St Johnstone). There will be a major seminar at Hampden on March 28.
RISE TO THE CHALLENGE.
The Scottish Drugs Challenge Fund aims to address one or more of the following themes in relation to drugs misuse:
* Changing attitudes * Modifying behaviour * Diverting young people away from drugs misuse into other healthy activities * Reducing health risks * Increasing community safety * Local enforcement activities Schools wishing to apply, should contact Scotland Against Drugs, 120 Bath Street, Glasgow G2 2EN, 0141 331 6150, website http:www.sad.org.uk