FEELING like you belong is something many of us take for granted on and off the court.
You arrive, you play and subsequently you feel included within the team.
But that’s not a uniform experience for all burgeoning basketball players.
Some have been shunned or are afraid to play just because they live the life they want to live, or love the people they want to love.
Proud 2 Play is changing perceptions amongst the young same-sex attracted and gender-diverse communities though – as it helps bring them them back to sport.
The organisation aims to promote inclusion in community sport clubs – with their ultimate aim to increase participation of LGBTQI young people as well as any person who feels isolated or scared by the current sporting landscape.
A big first step towards greater sporting inclusivity took place on Sunday evening at McKinnon Basketball Association – as Proud 2 Play’s All Inclusive Basketball League commenced.
It wasn’t about big dunks, sweet swishes or extraordinary skill though – just a group of players keen to get on court who feel safe and welcome to do so.
Proud 2 Play co-founder James Lolicato was thrilled with the turnout at Bentleigh Secondary College’s stadium on the weekend for the first session.
“We could not be prouder or happier with the turn out and reaction to Sunday’s first event,” Lolicato said. “It went so much better than what we could have ever imagined.
“We not only had people who had never played basketball before at the stadium, but also young people who left the sport – due to being frightened and feeling uncomfortable in the environment – who came back to learn the skills and feel included once again.”
The organisation itself is fairly new – having only been active for about nine months – however the idea has been in in the works for over a decade, based upon research and personal experience.
Lolicato and his partner Ryan started up Proud 2 Play to show young LGBTQI people that the perceptions are shifting and basketball is always ready and willing to welcome them back.
“Ryan and myself are partners in both the organisation and life and as such have combined Ryan’s experience of research in the youth sporting community – focusing on inclusion in youth sport – and my personal experiences of the sporting community to create a more accepting, diverse and inclusive model of youth sports,” Lolicato said.
“Basketball was my passion project and the first all-inclusive program we decided to go ahead with.
“Basketball is the sport which is closest to my heart as it is the sport I played both before and after I came out as gay to my friends, family and teammates.
“McKinnon Basketball Association was suggested to us as a champion of change by Basketball Victoria and was amazing in their support and help for our project, saying yes to everything which we requested or wanted to trial.”
Lolicato’s experiences with sport are sadly far too common within the gay community.
He played before he came out, then left the sport out of fear.
It took the intervention and support of his brother and team mates at The Dream Coats to show him there is hope out there – that people are willing to look beyond sexuality or gender to just get on with the game.
“My basketball experience was both positive and negative – when I was young I loved having that supportive team environment and fun exercise,” Lolicato said. “However as life progressed, as did my fears and worries about my sexuality and how sports, players, referees and patrons would respond to me being an openly gay man.
“As such, I unfortunately forced myself to leave basketball and not play socially for a few years.
“It wasn’t until my friends and twin brother basically forced me to join their team and become a member of a supportive team structure of which I felt safe and secure enough to play again.
“Not only was I now playing a game I loved again, but I was playing with a team of my friends and family who were constantly supportive, loving, caring and inclusive about my sexuality and my lack of skill.
“It made me feel silly about giving up the sport I loved in the first place just due to fears of homophobia and negativity in the environment.”
The response already has been incredible as Proud 2 Play started out with a great group from across the state – throughout metropolitan Melbourne and out to Dandenong and Coburg.
“We have received a few messages after the initial all-inclusive event with thanks and praise about the way the night was run,” Lolicato said. “The members of the program were extremely thankful for the coaches going back to basics and teaching skills and knowledge of the game which they might have forgot or never previously been exposed too.
“The newly created gaming structure as well showed extreme promise with the participants stating how exciting and inclusive the ‘5 Play Method’ was – with all Proud 2 Play all-inclusive games needing all participants must touch the ball before a shot can be made.
“A few of these participants had never even touched a basketball before and as such we were so proud to have them playing an adapted version of the game by the end of the first session.
The all inclusive program is being trialed at the moment – running on each Sunday in October – with the dates involving learning basics and trialing new and exciting gaming initiatives which seek to increase and promote inclusion and activity in the sport rather than just competition.
The McKinnon social league is just the start for Proud 2 Play – who hope to expand throughout Victoria in years to come.
But the all inclusive league is not the only avenue for LGBTQI players.
Lolicato encouraged all clubs and associations to reach out, educate themselves and open the doors to players from all walks of life – as it’s the best way to cultivate involvement.
“Research shows that LGBTQI individuals not only feel uncomfortable and scared in some community sporting environments but also don’t want to be rushed into participating in extremely competitive environments,” Lolicato said. “Clubs and associations need to educate themselves or use external resources to learn more about inclusion of LGBTQI young people in their organisations.
“It is only through education and experience by which these clubs and associations can be truly inclusive and accepting.
“The individuals are just that – individuals – and as such each and every person wants different things from their sport – be that social stimulus, exercise, competition, learning skills.
“Clubs and associations must ensure they are consulting these minority populations in their areas to learn more about what they specifically want and how in turn they can help supply these and ultimately increase participation.”
Proud 2 Play hasn’t stopped there either – the organisation worked with McKinnon Basketball Association in order to change bathroom facilities to have an all-inclusive restroom facility to accommodate all players.
If you’d like to join the Proud 2 Play All Inclusive Basketball League, head to “All Inclusive Basketball League” on Facebook, or contact Proud 2 Play directly at proud2play.org.au.