ESPN The Magazine: Hate is a waste of time

Updated: July 10, 2007, 11:59 AM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: This article appears in the July 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

Across the ocean, in a bigoted Irish town, little girls ask other little girls, "Coke or Pepsi?" It is a veiled, mean question -- because the wrong answer can get a little girl's home firebombed. This is a story about the right answer: a basketball game. A game arranged, in part, by one man who's a Coke and one man who's a Pepsi …

* * * * *

Playing For Peace
Matthew McDermottA Protestant mural along lower Newtownards Road, East Belfast.

His first memory in life is a funeral.

He can still see the stone facade of the church, the wood seats and the casket that held his father, his "da." It was no place for a 5-year-old boy; then again, Belfast in the mid-1970s was one corpse and one restless night after another.

He remembers, after his da's death, the police and the British army repeatedly storming his home after dark, yanking his mum out of bed and tossing her to the ground, manhandling him and his two screaming brothers. The strange men would rip up floorboards and drywall in a vain search for stashed ammunition. They never did find any, but from what he's been told, they once returned 40 times in 30 days. It drove his mum to drink, and she became a staggering alcoholic whom he had to follow up the stairs, in case she tumbled backward.

Months later, his mum moved the family to the Ormeau Road section of town, near her mother but also near the epicenter of the Catholic-Protestant "Troubles" of Northern Ireland. Men were butchered just beyond his front stoop -- over religion, land, politics -- and when he got older, he wanted answers. He wanted to know why his da was gone, why his mum never visited her husband's grave. When no one came clean, he eavesdropped. He heard his mum tell a relative that his da had been a member of the IRA and heard her tell a neighbor that he'd been shot. All sorts of questions raced through the boy's head. Shot by whom? Protestants? Had his da shot people too?

As a teenager, he roamed the area around the Ormeau Road with his most rugged Catholic friends, looking for Protestants to pay back. He knew a Protestant when he met one. If a man's name was William, Tom or Oliver, he was Protestant. If he was a Sean, Liam, Paddy or Seamus, he was Catholic. If he rooted for the Rangers football team, he was Protestant; if he rooted for Celtic, he was Catholic. If he played rugby or cricket, Protestant; hurling or Gaelic football, Catholic. If he went to a school called Holy Cross, definitely Catholic. The giveaways were numerous.

This was the world he lived in, where bigoted Catholics called Protestants "Prods," and bigoted Protestants called Catholics "Fenians." But it was also a world in which he could almost hide. His name was Dave -- Dave Cullen -- which didn't peg him to either religion, although he was Catholic. And his sport was basketball, a game considered neutral in Ireland, if it was considered at all.

Outdoor courts were scarce, so young Dave had to walk alone past dangerous Protestant neighborhoods to find a gym where he could shoot baskets, a gym he'd have to pay two quid to enter. He accepted the risk because he needed the escape. He was still haunted by his da's death, still furious at the army and the predominantly Protestant police force that had driven his mum to the bottle. He knew he was a bitter, prejudiced young man. But there was something about basketball, something about draining a shot from well beyond the arc, something that gave him peace.

Something that, down the line, he knew might be useful.

* * * * *

The policeman would be gone all night, and upon his morning return, his middle son would notice the vacant look in his eyes. What had his father seen? What had he done?

Some of it the father confessed to the boy. There was the day, in the early 1970s, when the father was blown over a wall by an explosion, and another day when he'd searched a grassy field for a severed head. He kept a double-barreled shotgun under his bed at night and checked under his police car for bombs in the morning. He never left the house mad at his wife because he knew he might never return.

Playing For Peace
Matthew McDermottExposed to horrible violence as a youth, Trevor Ringland dreamed of a unified Belfast.

But some of his tales were better off untold. Late at night, his department staged crude searches of the homes of Catholic families, in case the IRA had stashed guns inside. The families were roughed up, and the victims were often single mothers who'd just lost their husbands.

The policeman's son, Trevor Ringland, grew up oblivious to it all, but his innocence lasted only until he was 12. Searching his father's desk for a pencil, he stumbled upon macabre photos of men and women maimed and burned by a bomb that had been detonated by Protestants at a Belfast public house. His father, Adrian, was in charge of body identification, and the photos -- nude, roasted men with half a torso -- weren't meant for the boy to see. But it was too late: A trembling Trevor was forever changed.

He realized at an impressionable age that sectarianism was senseless. As he morphed into a sturdy teenage rugby star, he played cheerfully alongside the Catholics farther south in the Republic of Ireland, returning from international competitions appalled by Belfast's bigotry. His own father couldn't watch from the family section at Trevor's games, because of threats not only from the IRA but also from Protestant terrorists who considered him too protective of Catholics. So Adrian sat elsewhere, often wearing disguises, which sickened his son.

Trevor dreamed of a unified Belfast, and in 1985, at the age of 25, he got a glimpse of what that might be like when he led Ireland to a rare Five Nations rugby championship -- over England, Wales, France and Scotland -- spurring a citywide celebration. He was a right wing, with a style that mirrored Brian Urlacher's, and against the Scots he scored what many called the "Try of the Century," a play comparable to the Cal-Stanford touchdown. "The next day people were saying, 'Trevor Ringland walks on water,' " says ex-teammate and close friend Nigel Carr.

So amid the gloom of the Troubles, Trevor helped lift Belfast's spirits for an afternoon or five. But it didn't last. Two years later, he and Nigel were driving to practice in a team caravan when a bomb blew up an oncoming car, sending it crashing into the caravan. Carr suffered internal injuries, wrecking his career. Trevor escaped with minor scrapes.

About a year after a neck injury forced him to retire in 1989, Trevor wrote a letter to the British prime minister, John Major, pleading for reform. Then he and a Catholic teammate, Hugo MacNeill, co-founded Peace International, a rugby match convened to promote reconciliation. Trevor was dead-set on peacemaking, and years later, with a law degree under his belt, he became the co-chair of an organization called One Small Step, aimed at bridging the Protestant-Catholic divide.

It was a lofty goal. In Belfast, Catholics and Protestants are born in separate hospitals, buried in separate graveyards. They use separate mailboxes, read separate newspapers and send their children to separate schools. More than 90% of the city's public housing is segregated, and cement walls divide neighborhoods; one splits a public park in two. There's even a cement barrier that extends 10-feet beneath the ground at a cemetery, keeping apart the dead.

One Small Step's mission was to get Catholics to read Protestant newspapers and vice versa. To get Catholics to play cricket and Protestants to play Gaelic football. To integrate schools. "You hammer away at it," Trevor says. "You just drip, drip, drip and take little steps toward peace. Drip, drip, drip."

It was gallant and idealistic, and according to Trevor's papa, the cop of 42 years, absolutely na´ve. "Why bother?" Adrian Ringland asked his son. "You're just peeing into the wind."

* * * * *

That wind blew Dave Cullen into a street fight.

Dave was now 22 and, according to those who played with him on various club teams, the best three-point shooter in Northern Ireland. But basketball carried no weight on the Ormeau Road.

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He was out for a pint one night, and after a stop at his friend Paddy O'Hare's house, all that stood between him and his doorstep was 300 yards of Protestant real estate. Normally, he would have walked the two miles around the enemy neighborhood, avoiding potential confrontations, but he got careless and set out into the war zone. "Stupidity," says Dave's friend Charlie Toland. "Pure effin' stupidity."

He was quickly recognized by five hoods, two of them known killers. They ambushed him, taking turns kicking his head, groin, kidneys, stomach. As he tasted his own blood, Dave thought, Where is this going to finish? He sensed he might choke to death on his vomit, so he curled into the fetal position and feigned unconsciousness. For 15 more interminable seconds they continued to boot his face, then mercifully left.

Dave cried, out of anger. With one front tooth gone and gagging for breath, he limped back to his Catholic neighborhood. He bumped into Charlie's brother, Harry, who wept at the sight of the gore. Harry took Dave to a hospital, but when a nurse mentioned calling the police, the two young men snuck away. The thought of cops coming to his house, scaring his mum, disgusted Dave. And if she saw his crushed face, she'd think he was his da reincarnate, and that would devastate her.

Once home, Dave asked Harry to burn his bloody clothes, and he crept into bed. "But when my mum woke me the next day, there was no hiding it," Dave says. "My face -- it was like the Elephant Man."

His mum wept, only the second time Dave had seen Patsy Cullen cry, and in the ensuing months and years, he blamed himself for the escalated smoking and drinking that killed her, at 56. "Cancer got her," Dave says. "She died too young because of all the mess around our lives. I played my part. I made her worry too much."

At his mum's funeral, his granny Nellie made him promise he'd look after her. So every day after work, he groomed her, fixed her meals and sat with her next to the fire. Whenever he told her he despised the bigoted Protestants on the Ormeau Road, Granny, who was pushing 90, would just say: "Hate's a waste of time."

Dave considered Granny his best friend, and he would sit with her and talk glowingly of a girl named Kerry, whose warmth and smile, he said, brought him to his knees. And here was the stunning part: She was Protestant.

They'd had a daughter named Molly, and another, Eve -- out of wedlock, which didn't thrill Granny. Even though he still resented the Protestants on the Ormeau Road, Dave, now in his 30s, was starting to grasp the bigger picture. He and Kerry moved into a redbrick house that was nearer to work and Granny. A house in a Protestant neighborhood.

The move was dangerous, but living in a Catholic area would have put Kerry, with her telltale British accent, in greater harm. Dave had a neutral name and an Irish accent that stood up in any borough. So he kept his religion a secret, "pretended to be a Prod" and asked his Catholic friends not to visit. "I couldn't tell anyone we were mixed," Kerry says. "Years ago you would have been shot."

It was a difficult transition. Kerry didn't appreciate that Dave spent so much time at a Catholic pub in his old neighborhood. One day she went there, daughters in tow, to punch her husband in the nose. The couple even split for a spell. But during the rough patches, Dave had basketball to clear his mind. He was averaging over 20 points for the Queens club team, and Granny insisted that something noble would come of that odd sport of his.

Dave and Kerry eventually married, and Dave took care of Granny until she died, in 2005. They held her wake at his pub. And on the day of her funeral, as he helped carry her coffin, Dave felt his resentment for the Protestants on the Ormeau Road disappearing.

Granny had always encouraged Dave to coach, and while playing for a Northern Ireland All-Star team, he met an American, Sean Tuohey, whose family was planning an organization called Playing for Peace. They were already headed to Israel and South Africa, bringing enemies together through basketball, and the idea was to do the same in Belfast, where the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had created a more palatable climate. Sean was also about to recruit a new board member, a rugby icon named Trevor Ringland. He asked Dave, the likable teddy bear, to sign on as a coach.

Dave eventually agreed because, despite the Good Friday Agreement, he knew bigotry still ran rampant. Just six months earlier, a girl asked his 11-year-old, Eve, the following question: "Coke or Pepsi?"

* * * * *

This January, two strangers -- a 37-year-old Coke and a 47-year-old Pepsi -- went to work.

Playing For Peace
Matthew McDermottBasketball always gave Dave Cullen peace. Now he's using it to teach peace.

Playing for Peace, now Peace Players International, had expertise in bringing children together, but never in volatile north Belfast. The organization approached the all-girls Holy Cross Catholic school in Ardoyne and asked them to play basketball with the Wheatfield Protestant school, located across the street. To most, the suggestion itself was blasphemy.

Six years before, in 2001, Protestants who felt that Catholics were invading their residential space in Ardoyne took out their anger on the innocent girls of Holy Cross, which had long been situated in a Protestant stretch of homes. The girls, who ranged from ages 4 to 11, were taunted and attacked with bricks, urine-filled balloons, even a blast bomb. The protest, which lasted for 80 days, was international news, as resolute Catholic parents marched their sobbing daughters through the daily mob alongside the school's priest, Father Aidan Troy. Eventually, the girls began to sing songs to tune out the protesters, and their favorite became:

Emma took the cookie from the cookie jar.

Who, me?

Yes, you.

Couldn't be.

Then who?

So when Peace Players first proposed the basketball mixer, or "Twinning," it was no surprise that both schools said it was too soon. The organization then enlisted Trevor, who was still revered for his Try of the Century. In some ways, it was the equivalent of bringing in Michael Jordan. Wheatfield's principal, John Waugh, was a rugby fanatic who beamed at the mention of the ex-player's involvement.

Trevor urged Waugh not to "stay in his trench," and Wheatfield was eventually in. The more daunting barrier was Holy Cross, and so Trevor called Father Troy, who also happened to be a rugby nut. "Father Troy is the emotional leader of that community," Tuohey says. "Trevor was his hero. If Father Troy was wavering in any way … "

The priest responded by saying, "Children are the best peacemakers, because they don't fundamentally hate." He arranged a meeting with Holy Cross teachers in mid-April, a meeting to which Tuohey brought Dave. But the teachers were hesitant. They weren't listening to the American Tuohey, so Dave -- "in my vulgar Irish accent" -- said to trust him, because when the American left, he'd still be there. "He blew the room away," Tuohey says.

The Twinning was set for April 27 of this year on neutral ground, at Queen's University's gym. Holy Cross' principal, Betty Quinn, agreed to let one class of 10-year-olds play if the parents signed off. She sent permission slips home, inviting doubters to come in to discuss any objections.

Of 125 families, only five took her up on the meeting, which was held three days before the Twinning. Father Troy expected the parents to voice disapproval, then acquiesce. After all, basketball was neutral. He expected no hiccups.

But as Dave watched from the front of the room, the meeting devolved into a screaming match. One mother said she was still receiving death threats from Protestants. A father said his daughter was still "pissing herself" in bed, six years after the protests.

Dave tried to speak but was shouted down by parents who said his daughters hadn't been involved in the protests, making him irrelevant. But they had no idea that Dave was a Catholic living in a Protestant borough and that because of this Twinning, Dave was going to admit publicly to his neighbors who he really was. They had no idea that Protestants might petrol-bomb his home or hurl bricks at his door. "I don't think he'll be murdered," said his friend Charlie. "He's moved away from where they kick in people's doors and shoot 'em in the face. But a Molotov cocktail in the front garden? Yes."

Playing For Peace
Matthew McDermottThe kids learned to dribble, pass and play a peculiar American game called H-O-R-S-E.

If anyone understood these parents' pain, it was Dave. Here was a man who had baptized his two daughters and new baby twins in a locked Catholic church. He'd heard neighbors say, "Fenian this, Fenian that." But he was coming out because he was sick of "being a coward," sick of his daughters having to live a lie.

Dave wanted to tell the shouting parents that "hate's a waste of time," but their venom numbed him. And so they continued with their vitriol, even shouting down Father Troy, with one of them demanding, "Tell us this Twinning is postponed!"

The priest begged the parents not to divide the school. Nevertheless, one threatened to blockade the Twinning. It felt like the prelude to another international incident. Dave went home and called it one of his darkest days. "People are as bad as ever," he said. "They're beyond repair, but their children are a different kettle of fish. We have to get into these children's heads before it's too late."

Three days passed. On the morning of April 27 there was no blockade, and 27 of the 30 children showed up to the Twinning. It was a victory. The school buses came, and Dave, the Catholic, rode with Wheatfield's Protestants to the gym. Trevor might have been the face of the effort, the one who'd dared to pee into the wind. But Dave had become its legs and its heart.

Inside the gym, it wasn't so much a basketball game as a carnival. The kids wore brightly colored T-shirts that said "Share the Court." They learned to dribble, pass and, between the laughs, play a peculiar American game called H-O-R-S-E. Dave wore his Share the Court shirt too as he coached on the floor, while Trevor wore a suit and tie, nodding his approval from the mezzanine. Without Peace Players, these two men never would have met. But even their common mission couldn't guarantee a close friendship. In fact, they had spoken at length only once, at a barbecue at Trevor's home in the immaculate suburbs. Although Dave respected Trevor's crusade and found him polite, he couldn't help but think that the man's policeman father might have once ransacked his home. "Even if he wasn't there, he turned a blind eye," Dave says now. "So it might as well have been him."

This was the 30-year pain Dave still carried, but healing it was the whole point of this Twinning. The 10-year-old Protestant and Catholic kids were clean slates, still so na´ve. One of them asked a Peace Players coach, who was Jewish, "Are you Jewish Catholic or Jewish Protestant?" That made them all laugh. When basketball ended, the kids ate pizza together. Then they left, without incident, for their homes. On the way out of the gym, a girl in pigtails asked Dave, "When do we do it again?"

But in the following days and weeks, five sullen Holy Cross parents began to organize a petition to nix any future Twinnings. No one will know what will come of it until next fall. But shouldn't they have asked the children first? Because on the Holy Cross bus home that day, the little girls sang the cheeriest song they knew:

Nicole stole the cookie from the cookie jar.

Who, me?

Yes, you.

Couldn't be.

Then who?

Drip, drip, drip.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Dave Cullen and Trevor Ringland will be co-recipients of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2007 ESPYS.