Leo Walsh has a deep appreciation for America’s beauty; it’s a big reason why he chose to hop on his bicycle for three months and take a 3,500-mile trek across the country.
But what’s at the center of his attention is not always the lush landscape and rolling hills.
What might be invisible to most people is plainly evident to Walsh, whose passion for basketball – and for PeacePlayers International – has led him on a journey of a lifetime.
A major part of the trip, which began on Aug. 4 in his hometown of Clarks Green, Pennsylvania, and ended in mid-October on the fabled courts of Venice Beach, California, was a search for degraded basketball hoops ravaged by time.
“I always have my head on a swivel using my peripheral vision while I’m biking,” says Walsh. “There are times that I have a sense that an old barn coming up might have a hoop on the other side of it. Then I pass it and to my delight there is a beautiful battered old hoop.”
Walsh, 28, walked onto the basketball team while attending college at Fordham and developed a friendship with teammate Ryan Hage, who had spent two years in Cyprus working for PeacePlayers. Enamored with the mission of PeacePlayers, Walsh hoped to do similar work but he joined an ecommerce company after finishing college and the timing was never right.
Until now. All the money Walsh raised during his bike trip was donated to PeacePlayers.
“What PeacePlayers is at its core is exposing kids to cultures and customs and people that you might not be used to,” Walsh said. “It pushes your boundaries of what you’re comfortable with and when you’re exposed to those things at a young age, it breeds empathy and friendship and goodness.
“I think PeacePlayers’ initiative of play together, live together is just so simple and so true. If you can learn to play basketball together and you can be exposed to the different aspects of different cultures and religions and beliefs, then I think it will create empathy and goodness and, I think, a better world.”
Walsh wanted to start his trip in the spring of 2020 but the pandemic altered his plans. This gave him time to reflect on turmoil in the world, which only grew worse when the killing of George Floyd increased attention on racial injustice.
“I remember writing things down during the early days of the pandemic that we need to invest in our communities and invest in our kids because that’s what’s going to change things,” Walsh said. “And that kind of comes from a grassroots level.”
“For me as someone … who would like to make a difference and who was planning on biking across the country it only made sense that this was one of the things I can do to make a slight change. PeacePlayers was on my radar for a while and I just believe so fully in their philosophy.”
Over the first two weeks of his trip, Walsh already found and photographed dozens of hoops, which he chronicled on Instagram and on his blog at peachbaskets.net.
This is not the first time he’s scoured the continent for old hoops, though the last time he had the benefit of an engine and four wheels instead of his legs and two. Walsh drove 14,000 miles all around North America in 2019 with a similar mission to find hoops and tell their stories through photography and talking to the people whose land — or barns — they reside on.
While riding through the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia he noticed an old hoop and stopped to take some photos. The home belonged to an elderly African-American woman who just happened to pull into her driveway at the moment Walsh pulled up.
He asked for and received permission to photograph the hoop and also inquired about its history. Turns out the woman’s granddaughter had lived with her until she was 16 and adored shooting baskets. The granddaughter liked it so much she wouldn’t hesitate to chase after the basketball when a missed shot would disappear into nearby bushes.
The problem? The bushes left her legs so beat up her teachers grew concerned something was amiss at home.
“They called child services,” Walsh said. “And she had to bring them back to the house and prove that the scars were coming from the daughter going and fetching the ball from the bushes.”
It’s these stories that Walsh knows are out there which he craves to tell.
“I love the thought of me taking a picture of something that no one has thought to take a picture of,” he said. “If it means something to me, it may mean something to other basketball lovers.”
Walsh had to travel light to make sure he could get through dozens of miles each day but he was equipped with essentials: A tent, clothes, a camera and a basketball that had a PeacePlayers decal on it.
While bicycling through the southern parts of Illinois, David Cassel, Head of Strategy and Operations at PeacePlayers U.S., made a trip from Chicago to meet up with Leo for the first time. David got a taste of Leo’s new daily reality when he stayed with Leo, not in Leo’s usual fashion of a tent, but in a stranger’s home, graciously offered to them through a special platform that matches cross-country bicyclists with beds and warm showers. David and Leo hosted a Live event on Instagram, where hundreds of Leo’s supporters from across the country tuned in, offering praise and encouragement.
The days were long and could be arduous, but he amazingly finished his nearly three month journey in Venice Beach, California in mid-October. Our PeacePlayers Los Angeles staff members, Sha Frye and San Dixon, met him at the finish line in celebration! The whole event was broadcasted live on Instagram, where Leo shared statistics of his journey including; a total distance traveled of 3500 miles, enduring five busted tires, and tons of road kill, and consuming lots of Clif Bars, donuts, and McGriddles to get him through.
Leo ended the live broadcast with some last words, in hope of inspiring others to support PeacePlayers and the mission of peace and equity; “The main thing I wanted to get out of the trip was to raise money and awareness for PeacePlayers. I believe so fully in what [this organization] does. I’ve loved basketball my whole life and when I found out, through Ryan Hage, about what you do; bringing kids together to create peace through the sport that I love, it made sense to do the small part that I can … We need to invest in our kids, our youth, and our communities.”
Thank you, Leo!