Aaron Winshall, Founder Haiti Basketball Foundation | Hoop Story #077

Aaron Winshall, Founder Haiti Basketball Foundation | Hoop Story #077

Tell us your origin story. How did you get to where you are today? 

What’s happening Local Hoops, it is an honor to speak with you. I am a big fan of the brand. My basketball origins go back to growing up in the suburbs of Boston, MA. My best friend Danny introduced me to the game when I was 6. Our families lived near each other and we attended Jewish Community Day School together. Where we created the school's first basketball team, the Rappin’ Rabbis, which was coached by Danny’s father Marc (who I still work with today). We went undefeated, something like 5-0 total over three seasons, playing the local JCC or Montessori school. Clearly very humble beginnings. I remember those days watching NBA on NBC, collecting basketball cards, renting MJ highlight tapes at blockbuster, and going to the Celtics game with my parents to see them get crushed by Mutombo, Steve Smith, and Mookie Blaylock’s Hawks. At one time I was a big fan of Shammond Williams, and also Marcus Banks who was a great defender for the Celtics.

Danny and his family instilled this love for basketball in me, and we used to hoop with his younger brother Joel (who went on to play for the offensive juggernaut, Grinnell College). Grateful for those early days, it was so much fun playing in youth leagues like CYO, metro west, and AAU. We were gifted “Values of the Game” by Bill Bradley at the end of one season. The book still resonates with me now. Also, I had this top 10 centers book, with George Mikan and others. Of course one chapter was about the late, great Bill Russell. The anecdotes about Russell stuck with me given he had been responsible for such dominant years with the Celtics. Also, I was beginning to learn and appreciate his role in the civil rights movement.

As I started to develop a sort of critical self-awareness I was demystified about where I would go as a player. My dreams of playing in the NBA shifted to aspirations of being a coach. Specifically, my goal was to become the head coach of University of San Francisco, because it is where Russell led the Dons to the championship. 

When I was playing HS ball my focus was on becoming a coach. I still have a strong love for HS basketball partially because of how many great memories I had during that time. Some of my closest friends in the world today are teammates, and even opponents from back then. The summer before college I interned for Larry Anderson, the head coach of MIT. After that I was a student manager with Syracuse University’s men’s basketball. Working for the recently retired Hall of Famer Coach Boeheim, practice became my classroom. Cuse had so many great coaches and players during my time there, like Mike Hopkins, Jonny Flynn, Kris Joseph, and (our mutual friend) Brandon Reese. My first couple years; I was helping Coach Hop work with Jonny outside of practice. Witnessing that really showed me what it takes to develop your game.

My first college coaching job was working for Guy Rancourt as an assistant at Lycoming in Williamsport, PA. Rancourt has been a great mentor, and he is now the head coach at his alma mater, Western Connecticut State. He created my next opportunity working with the University of Miami men’s basketball program as a graduate assistant. Working for Coach L was a dream come true. We had an amazing group of players and coaches. Our entire coaching staff all went on to be head coaches. The experience of getting my masters at the U and working for the team was life-changing.

The freedom Coach L runs his program with creates an ideal work environment. You have ownership of what you’re responsible for and get to be a leader in your space. Nick Friedman (a recent Hoop Story you did), Ryan Kardok, and I built a strong dynamic. They are two of the games best teachers. Both are now successful NBA and Division 1 coaches.

Coach Chris Caputo (who is now the head coach of GW in D.C.) helped me go after some NBA opportunities, which led me to the Miami Heat. Working for coach Spo in the video room was an amazing learning experience. Essentially, what I imagine getting a PhD in basketball would be. The Heat is an impressive organization filled with special people. 

While working for the Heat I was brought into a new project with the Haitian men’s national team. The Fédération Haïtienne de Basketball (FHB) had recently hired Nick (who I worked with at the U) and the newly appointed head coach, Matt Brase. The Haiti Basketball Foundation (@haiti_hoops) was founded on June 6, 2018. The FHB is the main collaborator for that project, and I am grateful for the partnership we are building. Our work now extends beyond the national teams, and we are involved with other community-based basketball programs across Haiti.

In addition to working with Haiti basketball, I have been doing player development. At the same time I stopped working for the Heat, Nick was starting up The Preparation, his training and predraft business. Being able to help and observe that was so valuable. It opened up an opportunity for me to join Andrew Moran, who is the founder of Miami Hoop School. Moran, his family, and his team (Jorge, DC, & more) are an amazing group. That energy in the gym is the environment that you live for as a hooper. We ran pre-drafts together over the last few years mostly for Excel sports. Moran has also built up an incredible HS program, winning back-to-back FL state titles. I really cherish those last few years in Miami working with the Hoopschool Mafia.

Recently I moved to Los Angeles, CA. I know that wasn’t the quick version. Thank you for the chance to reflect on my path to the present.

Your work with Haiti Hoops is amazing! Haiti is often portrayed in a negative light. Can you speak on your favorite things about the country? 

Thank you for the kind words. I relish the opportunity to grow my understanding of the culture, history, and language. Haiti is often misrepresented, which is ultimately the catalyst for this project with the national basketball teams. It is about narrative change, and I believe in its power to make a positive impact.

There are so many things I love about Haiti and the Haitian people. Fortunately, Miami has such a Haitian presence, living there for nearly a decade I got a feel for the community, the food, the art. My time spent in Haiti has only reinforced and strengthened those impressions. There is a kindness and grit, a persevering spirit that the Haitian people I have engaged with share. The Haitians I work with have taught me so much. The more understanding I gain, the more I appreciate the Haitian people. I know that the joy, and optimism I have been engaging with is an inspiration. My words cannot do them justice. Haiti deserves more recognition, and support.

You previously mentioned using basketball as a tool for social justice. How is this being done in your spaces? 

Many examples come to mind in the context of present day Haiti. 

The Perseverance School of Basketball run by Lesly Desjardins in Port-au-Prince. Affectionately known as coach Chòv, he has been doing this for over 40 years! He works with almost 100 kids 13 and under. All free for the youth to give them a safe space to coexist outside of school.

Dave Fils-Aimé runs Baskètbol pou Ankadre Lajenès (BAL), A.K.A. Basketball to Uplift the Youth. His program serves a few specific neighborhoods, including where Dave grew up in Martissant. BAL uses basketball as a tool to mentor and educate Haitian youth.

Marc Arthur Jean-Louis manages the Centre Sport pour L’Espoir A.K.A. Sport Center for Hope. He also started a program in his hometown of Jeremie, Global Haitian Advancement Through Education & Sports (GHATES).

Robert Luis Bassiany is running amazing youth basketball initiatives based out of Saint-Michel De l’Atalaye. And the list goes on and on.

Basketball is a vehicle for positive social change, and seeing this in action all over the world pushes me to keep going. I admire those doing work beyond the game like SEED Project, Giants of Africa, and Peace Players. I saw you did a Hoop Story with McKinley Nelson. What wonderful work he is doing with Project sWish Chicago. Another one is Ciara Carl and her nonprofit Unchained.

As a player and/or coach what are your favorite things about the game?

The freedom of movement, how the game flows baseline-to-baseline, ball movement, even momentum swings in competition. I love the feeling of finding the rhythm with shooting and skills. Basketball is an art form, and a multi-dimensional discipline. What serves me well in basketball, also serves my wellbeing. Committing to the process of improving as a player and coach has been transformative. 

Ultimately, I am a student of the game. I love learning by working with athletes, or even simply watching hoops. Of course, I love to play pickup (inside or outside). For me (as for many others I imagine), a few hour hoop session is a sacred spiritual practice. Lastly, I love the collective aspect. I love that basketball can transcend difference and be common ground for people to connect.

From college to professional, you’ve been part of basketball around the world. What are some of the similarities and differences in basketball culture between the United States and internationally? 

Through the fortune of working with and competing against people from all over, the game has made me more opened minded. One of my favorite things to do is to play pickup in different places. It is cool to see distinct elements in one place versus another. Conversely, there are commonalities that arise from omnipresence of the universal language of basketball. The globalization of the game has never been more apparent, and it is leveling the playing field. Yet, it seems there is something here that is difficult to encapsulate and may not be duplicated.

Hoopers are everywhere, and not just that there is talent all over. Passion for the game permeates the world.

With so much accomplished, what’s next for you? 

Hopefully, I have a long way to go. Just keep learning and improving my craft. Continue to help athletes become their best selves. Definitely appreciative where the game has taken me, now its time to grow here and add to what is already a thriving LA basketball ecosystem. The work with the Haiti Basketball Foundation is only five years in; we are gaining momentum, and just getting started.

Any shout outs you want to give?

Shout out to you guys, thank you for having me. It is awesome to see the brand grow to what it is today. Excited about your new collaboration with Project Backboard, “Every Court Has A Story”. 

Thank you for highlighting our work and for your contribution to the Haiti Basketball Foundation. Shout out to Chance Athletics, Davon Reed, Miami Hoop School, Miami Heat players, coaches, equipment staff, and all those who have supported us thus far.

Shout out others who are doing unique creative things around the game. Some of my favorites are New York Sunshine, Stay Close Tae, and, here in Cali, Franchise Magazine and Veniceball.

Shout out to Nik Caner-Medley, Antonio Reeves, Jaxson Weber, James Wiseman, Marcus Zegarowski, and all the athletes I have worked with. Thank you for showing trust in me, and my occasionally unorthodox approach. 

Shout out to my family. They have been there supporting my basketball journey from the beginning and enduring my craziness. Shout out to the amazing photographers who captured the images I shared with you all (Kathy Rosario, Chris Samson, Jordi Herrera, and Chris Costello).

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