Lee’s Summit resident Derek Durham has ties to Eastern Jackson County and France.

After all, he’s lived in both areas.

He played basketball for Raytown South High School before joining the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee men’s team. He played professional basketball in Europe for 16 years.

He last resided in Avignon, France and met his wife in Lyon. After he retired from playing four years ago, he decided he wanted to facilitate a basketball exchange program between the United States and France.

He struck a deal with Independence Mayor Eileen Weir to make it happen. As part of Durham’s Underdog Sports Association, a basketball exchange program was developed two years ago as a partnership between Saintes, France and Independence. It allows youth and high school age basketball players from France and Eastern Jackson County to participate in basketball camps in both countries. Three Underdog teams participated in tournaments this summer in the Kansas City area — two which consisted of all local players (middle school aged and high school junior varsity players) and varsity players, which consisted mostly of players from France and two from Eastern Jackson County. The players in the Underdog Sports Association traveled to play in a tournament in France the previous two years.

“We are the exchange,” Durham said of his wife and children, who all are from France. “We wanted to give others the opportunity to experience the same thing (being in both countries).”

This summer, players from France got to visit Eastern Jackson County and got to scrimmage against members of the William Chrisman High School boys basketball team. The varsity team won a Drive5 Sweatin’ Buckets Tournament and took second at an Agape Hoops Productions tournament.

“They loved it; they had a good experience,” Durham said of the players from France. “Basketball-wise and culture-wise, I think it helped open their minds up to other things. That’s what the culture exchange it all about, having an understanding of people who are not like you and don’t talk like you.”

“(The players) didn’t have an understanding of each other. There was a language barrier. But we were able to come together for one common cause and support each other.”

Durham added that the players in his program are for “underdogs” — which is open to all players, but includes those who got cut from their high school basketball teams or ones who are at risk.

“We want to help as many players as possible,” he said. “It helps keep some kids out of trouble and gives them something to do instead of sitting there doing nothing.”

Blue Springs South graduate Sam Benson, who is currently in the United States Army, played on the summer varsity team last year in France. It ended up being an experience of a lifetime.

“I had never been to Europe,” he said. “I met Coach Durham when I was 13 years old at a 24 Hour Fitness gym. Ever since then, we started working out one on one together. After years of being with him, we created the program and he invited me to go to the basketball camp in France and it was a great experience.”

“I met all the kids (from France). They were nice and friendly. I still stay in touch with a lot of those guys on social media.”

He had to get used to playing with athletes who played a different style of basketball. Benson said players locally play a more physical style while those in France played with more finesse and are focused on shooting from the perimeter.

“Their big men over there were more like (former Dallas Mavericks forward and Germany native) Dirk Nowitski and shoot and dribble rather than getting physical down low,” he said. “We worked well together and ended up winning the tournament over there.”

In the future, Durham hopes to facilitate an exchange in activities outside of basketball such as business, arts and music.

“We want to start exchanging with each other, and bridge the gap between both sides,” Durham said.