CINCINNATI -- A few years ago, local health care consultant Faris Ghani was returning to the Tri-State from a business trip. On the plane back home, he was seated next to someone with whom it was clear he had nothing in common.
Things felt tense until the stranger noticed the Bengals gear Ghani was wearing. For the next 90 minutes, they talked about sports.
That experience convinced Ghani that sports can unite people from the opposite ends of the world. He wondered why the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, where Ghani worships, couldn't use sports to unite the surrounding community.
It took a few years and more conversations to make it happen, but that was the genesis of the interfaith basketball tournament planned for 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 10 at Sycamore High School.
A team from the Islamic Center, a team from Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy and a team drawn from alumni of Jewish day school Rockwern Academy will first square off against each other. Then, they'll break into interfaith teams to play three-on-three games. The public is welcome to watch, and there's no charge for admission.
It's an event that comes at a particularly good time, considering the current political climate, Ghani said.
"Sports is something that brings people together," said local attorney Nadeem Quraishi, who also worships at the Islamic Center. "We want to provide a forum to bring the community together … to break down barriers."
Ghani, Quraishi and Munam Sayed are organizing the event for the Islamic Center. They know how to organize basketball tournaments, they say, because they've worked with the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati Annual Day Tournament, an event the center has been putting on for 14 years.
In that tournament, basketball teams from Muslim communities in surrounding cities compete with the Islamic Center for bragging rights. The most recent edition included 36 teams in three age groups from cities as far away as Dayton, Toledo and Indianapolis.
Two years ago, the event added a three-point shooting contest. This year, a buzzer-beating shot made it onto the CBS News website.
"It's the biggest weekend in the Muslim community, every year," Quraishi said.
The Islamic Center, which has its own gym, offers basketball as an incentive for kids who participate in its Sunday school program. Some enroll for the school just so they can play ball, Sayed said.
It's even become a tool for parents to help motivate better behavior. For example, they can tell their children they can't go to practice until they finish their homework, he said.
The interfaith tourney is an outgrowth of the Islamic Center's basketball program, but it's also a natural evolution from the Islamic Center's outreach to the non-Muslim community. A good example, Ghani said, is the open house held there the first Saturday of each month.
Here's another example.
Last spring, the Islamic Center invited Gary Zola, the head of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Clifton, to speak at the mosque about how Jews had organized their communities in the United States.
The mosque leadership was looking for tips on how the Muslim community could do the same thing, said Jackie Congedo, director of the local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is organizing the Jewish team's participation in the tourney.
Congedo attended Zola's talk and there met Ghani, who talked to her about a get-together and basketball scrimmage the Islamic Center had had with Crossroads Church a few months before. They talked about how nice it would be to get the children of each faith together for basketball, she said, and that's how the planning began.
It was in the works long before the recent neo-Nazi rally in Charlottsville, Virginia, that ended with one counter-protester dead.
"The events there have highlighted how important the regular work of building bridges of understanding and promoting tolerance is," Congedo said.
"Despite all that's challenging in our world, we see great promise in our community's children coming together, regardless of differences, to have fun and get to know each other," she continued. "The earlier we can show kids that there's more that brings us together than divides us, the brighter our collective future will be."
Crossroads couldn't field a team this year, Ghani said, so Cincinnati Hills was recruited in its place.
The organizers from the Islamic Center hope they can make the interfaith tourney an annual event, adding different age groups as they go along. They'd also like to open it to other faiths – for example, to teams from the Hindu or Sikh communities.
They're also hoping it's something that can catch on in other cities.
On the basketball court, there's no Jew, Muslim or Christian – everyone is the same, Ghani said.
"The only thing anyone cares about is, 'Does he have a midrange?'" Quraishi said.