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Former NBA player Ira Newble’s African journey

He brought attention to genocide in Darfur in 2007 and can’t let it go

“No one is free until we are all free.”
 — Martin Luther King Jr.


The eight NBA seasons went by in a blur, but the images of a refugee camp in Africa remain crystalline for Ira Newble, who spent nine days in Chad on a humanitarian mission. That experience prompted him to become aware of the social and economic disparities that roil our planet.

The atrocities of war left thousands physically maimed and children with enough mental scars that rendered Newble powerless despite how hard he tried to help.

“I met a man whose eyelids were sewn shut because his eyes were cut out,” Newble said. “Children shared pictures and all of their artwork depicted what they saw prior to coming to the refugee camp. There were stick figures of soldiers with weapons, people running and blood everywhere. I struggled with this. I’ll never forget those pictures.”

At that time, 10 years ago, Newble, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, traveled to Chad to support humanitarian efforts for the thousands of displaced refugees from the Sudan’s Darfur region who escaped the turmoil. Before the current resurgence of consciousness among athletes — such as in 2014 when then-Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and other athletes donned “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts, or the Missouri football players strike in 2015 and the recent stand taken by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — Newble not only became the first professional athlete to bring attention to the genocide in Darfur when he visited the region in the summer of 2007, but he was among the first American athletes to use his celebrity platform for an international cause.

The new birth in racial resistance by black athletes is not only a breath of fresh air against many of the challenges in the United States, but that same support can often leach out to fight other atrocities, especially abroad.

“There’s a lot of domestic challenges right now that some of the athletes have been more outspoken about, and I have a great respect for that,” said Ruth Messinger, former president of the American Jewish World Service, an organization that supports human rights and displaced Darfurians around the world. “They bring a different level of attention because we’re in a society that likes its sports or media stars, and when an athlete gets focused on an issue it’s much easier to focus the attention and get people to take action.”

The conflict in the region was created when rebels in Darfur took up arms because they accused the government of neglecting the region. The Sudanese government armed ethnic Arab militia groups, known as the “Janjaweed,” to attack the ethnic African groups. The government would drop smoke bombs from the air and the Janjaweed forces would raid the land on horseback, burning villages, poisoning wells and attacking villagers with machetes. Since 2004, nearly 400,000 people have been killed and millions displaced.

Newble was introduced to the conflict in early 2007 when he read a newspaper article on his way to a morning shootaround in Charlotte, North Carolina, as a member of the Cavaliers. There was a story about Smith College professor Eric Reeves, who was working for Darfur relief from his hospital bed despite suffering from leukemia.

“I wondered why I had never heard about this,” said Newble, a ferocious reader. “At the time, I always wanted to get involved in a cause, specifically Africa, because it’s one of the richest continents in natural resources, but also one of the poorest. Here was my opportunity. I wanted to shed some light on the issue.”

He reached out to Reeves and the two bonded quickly over the issue. Newble met Hunter Payne, founder of Aids Still Required, a charitable organization devoted to humanitarian relief. Newble also learned that China is a major trading partner and supplier of weapons to the Sudanese government. 

Newble and Reeves decided to write a letter to challenge China and its role in Sudan, because China was about to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

“The Olympics is about peace and unity, and what China was doing in Darfur is a conflict of interest,” Newble said. “So I’m like this, ‘Let’s put pressure on China. They’re communist, so it’s not like they’re going to do anything about it, but let’s draw attention to it and put pressure on them.’ ”

The start of that pressure was to have members of the Cavaliers sign the letter of protest crafted by Newble. Prior to his presentation to his teammates, that included a 22-year-old LeBron James, Newble compiled a packet of information for each player. He addressed the team in the locker room one day after practice and asked them to read the information and follow up with any questions.

James and guard Damon Jones were the only two players that did not sign the letter.

“I was too young to [understand] anyone’s movement at that point in time,” James told The Undefeated last month. “Ira was a great guy to be around because he had a great sense of who he was. And anytime you can find someone comfortable in their own skin, it’s something unique.”

Newble suspects Jones likely did not sign because of his shoe deal with Li-Ning, a Chinese company that makes athletic shoes and sporting goods.

“LeBron was young and is sponsored by Nike, which has heavy ties in China,” Newble said. “Those guys didn’t sign and I didn’t have any hard feelings. I’ve always tried to educate my teammates by either passing out books like Million Dollar Slaves or engage them in conversation about certain issues.”

Newble’s birth in social awareness grew out of his relationship with his father, Ira Newble Sr., who was active in the civil rights movement as a student at Johnson C. Smith University in the 1960s. He participated in sit-ins and marches.

“My father encouraged me to read a lot of different things,” Newble said.

NBA reaction

This was also at a time when the NBA increased its presence in China with NBA backed leagues and the opportunity to increase merchandise sales because of the large Chinese population. So Newble’s stance wasn’t exactly embraced by the league. But the NBA did not denounce Newble’s efforts publicly.

“[Former NBA commissioner] David Stern had huge ties in China,” Newble said. “They were trying to bring the NBA there, so this is a huge problem. We all know people move by the business deal and how much money they’re going to make, but you can’t publicly not support [the cause] because we’re talking about genocide.”

Reaction to Newble’s work was not well-received by several league general managers, who told his agent that they saw his efforts as disruptive to the Cavaliers postseason move.

“I’m not sure what they were talking about, because my whole thing was bringing attention to genocide, need I say more?” Newble said.



Trip to Chad

Newble accomplished his goal by bringing attention to Darfur by conducting several local and national interviews. His message reached players such as Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant, who did public service announcements and spoke against the plight in Darfur. Newble sent money to the humanitarian groups in the region to help the refugees.

But something was missing.

No matter how much he spoke about the issue or how many pamphlets he presented, Newble needed to see the atrocities for himself.

“I needed to be able to describe that story, and going made it possible for me to do that,” he said.

After the San Antonio Spurs swept the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals that summer, Newble set up a trip to the region that included actress Mia Farrow, Messinger of the American Jewish World Service, a reporter and videographer. Before flying into Chad from a neighboring country, the group could only travel with bare essentials. The small plane flew to its destination and could not land until the landing area was secured by a liberation army to protect the party from the militia.

“I was nervous, but Mia Farrow and Ruth Messinger had been there over 20 times and they appeared calm and cool,” Newble said. “That kept me calm.”

The group was picked up at the makeshift airport and escorted, via military convoy, to a compound supported by the United Nations. Newble’s group lived in tents just outside of the compound for nine days.

“I grew up in Detroit, so I’ve never been camping,” Newble said. “Nor have I lived in conditions outside in a desert. The compound reminded me of a concrete prison. The bathroom area wasn’t clean. I didn’t take a shower the entire time … I wore long sleeves and pants because of the mosquitos.”

On that first night, Newble woke up in the middle of the night wondering what was behind the pus bubbles that formed on the side of his face and neck.

“And the sweat is making [the infection] burn, and I’m thinking I’ve only been here for a day and I’ve already caught something,” Newble said. “I was told that I must have zipped up a beetle inside of my tent and that it wasn’t anything for me to worry about because my face would heal in a few days.”

Visiting the refugees

The group traveled a short distance each day by convoy to visit the refugees who lived in makeshift homes made out of tarp and wood. Newble observed the distribution of food rations of beans and rice. Relief workers from various parts of the world assisted in the distribution. Hundreds of refugees stood in line to receive food.

Newble had an issue when dinner was served.

“Now we’re in Africa and there are flies all over the food,” Newble said. “I look at the group and they look at me like, ‘If you want to eat, shoo away the flies and eat.’ In the States, if a fly lands on your food for a second, you’re throwing everything away. So I ate. It put things in perspective.”

Newble volunteered with the food distribution, led basketball camps and took time to listen to the stories told by the children and women.

“Kids ran up to me laughing and smiling,” Newble said. “They loved when you took pictures and showed them. Their reaction was like the pictures were the funniest thing in the world. It was amazing how happy the kids were despite everything that was going on around them.”

But the smiles could not erase all of the pain inflicted upon the hundreds of refugees in camp. The visible scars and absent limbs were reminders of the severity of the attacks that led the Darfurians, who were lucky enough, to safety. Many of the women were raped, and if the men were not killed, they were maimed in some way.

Newble gained more understanding of the conflict, which equipped him to bring further awareness.

“He came as a humble learning person that spent a lot of time listening to people and asking questions that prepared him when he returned to the United States,” said Messinger, who is now the global ambassador for American Jewish World Service.

Newble returned to the U.S. and continued his work to bring attention to Darfur. The Cavaliers traded Newble in the spring of the 2007-08 season. He joined the Los Angles Lakers later that season in what would be his final season in the NBA. He spent the next two years playing overseas before he became an assistant coach in the NBA’s D-League.

“I had an opportunity to play in China, and if you didn’t know, China pays extremely well,” said Newble, who has taken a leave from coaching. “I wanted to go and I wanted the money, but I thought about it and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, how can I take money from China after what they were implicit in doing? I turned them down.’ ”

The situation in Darfur received a mass amount of attention 12 years ago, and the worst kind of mass killing was forestalled, Messinger said. But the situation remains and work continues for many world organizations.

“But it’s not a situation that’s gotten a lot better,” Messinger said. “The president of Sudan, who’s behind all of this, has been sanctioned by the International Criminal Court, but not arrested and tried. It’s not a situation that has resolved itself quickly.”

But the amount of attention brought to Darfur by Newble is an example of the kind of attention current athletes have brought to social issues here in the United States. Newble wishes he had the All-Star status to provoke even more change.

“Not because of the money, nor the fame, but for the platform,” Newble, 41, said. “Athletes are fortunate to have that position, and you have to walk that path as best you can because it’s a blessing.”

And that same All-Star platform has been used by James, the same player who did not sign the protest letter years ago.

“LeBron was new to the league at that time, and he was not ready or prepared to support that cause,” Newble said. “I give him so much respect to see where he is now. He’s doing so much with the community and with the youth. He’s a role model. He’s also not afraid to express his political views, which shows he’s willing to put all of that on the line — much respect to LeBron.”

Branson Wright is a multimedia sports reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is co-host of The Sports Brothers radio show and a documentary film director and producer.