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Basketball blitz captivates Kiribati

Basketballers battle in Betio
Basketballers battle in Betio.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

A sports for development blitz has converted the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati into a basketball hotspot, and everyone from cheeky kids to sedentary office workers are now having hoop dreams.

There may not be a shiny trophy, but victory will be sweet.

Without funds for a winners' cup, community basketball teams from Kiribati's main island Tarawa, are instead deciding to 'bring a plate' to finals day, so a feast of chicken, beef, rice and vegetables awaits the victorious team.

Elsewhere on the island, government workers who've done more lying down than laying up in recent years, are suddenly jumping, shooting and heavy breathing their way through a competitive game of half-court three-on-three.

Players wait patiently for some court time in Teaoraereke Village
Players wait patiently for some court time in Teaoraereke Village.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Barefoot players line up patiently in Teaoraereke Village in the hope they'll get a shot away in the afternoon competition before the sun sets behind the palm trees, while the next morning, in the roofless ruins of an old maneaba or meeting hall, school children learn to scuttle sideways like crabs during a defensive basketball drill.

Basketball is everywhere in Kiribati.

Kiribati Hoops for Health coordinator Tekabara Raurenti
Kiribati Hoops for Health coordinator Tekabara Raurenti

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"I am so proud as a Kiribati citizen. I am so proud to see my fellow islanders entertained and involved and playing basketball and other sports," says Hoops for Health coordinator Tekabara Raurenti, who has been crucial to the game's recent spread.

"Before we used to have only a few people playing basketball but now we can see there's a lot more participation."

- Tekabara Raurenti

Alongside Tebanimaneka Primary School, in a clearing under the palm trees, lies what might be the most picturesque basketball court on the planet.

Iotia 'Jo' Paul shows the way at a school clinic
Iotia 'Jo' Paul shows the way at a school clinic.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Holding court is an effusive Iotia Paul, known to all as Jo. The 34-year-old point guard, who has been a key member of the Kiribati national team since 2003, is explaining the finer points of the game to a couple of dozen sixth graders.

"I try to motivate them," he says.

"To tell them sport is a key to success for them. That they should be a part of it."

- Iotia 'Jo' Paul

"I'm just trying to share what I have learned. It makes me fit, active and strong and not just lazy. It brings me a healthy life."

There is growing evidence it is doing the same for many I-Kiribati.

Dr Sam Teeta has rediscovered his love for the game
Dr Sam Teeta has rediscovered his love for the game.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

Dr Sam Teeta, a senior dental officer at the Tungaru Central Hospital, has rare insight. He not only sees the state of the health of I-Kiribati every day, he confronts his own.

"I used to play back in high school," he says, nostalgically.

"A basketball court is close to my house but I hardly go there."

That is, until he was roped into the Ministry Tournament which pits government workers from across all sectors against each other in a half-court three-on-three battle for bragging rights.

"For those who haven't had time to play, it gives them the chance to play with other workers.

"It is interesting and fun. It gives us time to play and unite with colleagues from other ministries and get along, and sweat out all the fat that's been stored."

- Dr Sam Teeta

Dr Sam has since added a bike to his life, and lost a few kilograms.

Health and life expectancy in Kiribati are among the poorest in the Pacific region.

New cases of diabetes increased tenfold in the decade after 1992 and new cases of hypertension almost quintupled over the same period.

While limited space and a lack of funding for quality sports facilities remain a challenge, many villages have been gifted table tennis tables. Volleyball and walk-to-work programs have also been initiated.

Iotia 'Jo' Paul wants to share the good fortune basketball has brought him
Iotia 'Jo' Paul wants to share the good fortune basketball has brought him

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"Playing sport is the most important thing," Jo says when discussing his country's attitudes to health.

So sport has become a key weapon in improving health in Kiribati, thanks in part to a basketball blitz from Bonriki to Betio.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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