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 start