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April 7, 2020

The Delacorte Review: The Baller

Can attitude help save the planet? A frightened climate reporter meets an ex-basketball player with a serious game plan.

By Audrey Gray

Teammates surrounded Mazria in Los Angeles…bumping elbows instead of shaking hands as they gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel during the early days of the US coronavirus outbreak, pre-quarantines. Three of his childhood friends, men who’d played Brookyn street ball with “Mazz” back when a twenty-three-foot jumper was still only two points, came out for his opening keynote. His two sisters were there. His daughter Demetra and her boyfriend showed up, as did one of Mazria’s most influential allies, Farhana Yamin, the UK environmental lawyer who’d represented small island nations in the years leading up to the Paris Climate Accord of 2016.

Apart from his inner circle, more than 400 architects, urban planners, contractors, and building material manufacturers had gathered at CarbonPositive’20 to collaborate on “net zero carbon” building codes, lower-carbon materials, and a faster rate of change throughout the industry. And there had been some movement, even in the previous six months.

The AIA passed a strongly worded resolution at its annual conference committing to mitigating climate impacts in all new projects. And a Chicago-based architect, Tom Jacobs, had rallied colleagues around the world to take a more activist role in their communities, including participating in youth-led Global Climate Strikes.

Mazria had fresh slides and new ideas for them all, though he was moving a bit tenderly as he approached the podium this conference. He’d turned eighty in December and soon after pulled a groin muscle playing basketball with his home pick-up crew in Santa Fe. “Every day, he wakes up and he makes a choice,” Demetra, his tall, look-alike daughter, told me right after Mazria delivered the conference opener. “Am I going to give up or am I going to keep going? He’s a very stubborn man.”

His stubbornness, I’d decided in the months since I’d seen him, might best be summed up as a fierce and utter rejection of defeatism. Perhaps it was a personality trait, or maybe an attitude drilled into him during his earliest Brooklyn park days, when losing a three-on-three meant you had to the leave the court but winning was your ticket to stay and play the next game.

Regardless, I was starting to wonder if the conviction that humans could slow climate change and survive in a different, greener world was critical to summoning enough action to make it so. What if the belief this thing wasn’t winnable might be the one thing preventing the miracle?

A building materials-focused group called the Carbon Leadership Forum helped launch an open-access online calculator in November that allowed architects to gather emissions data during the design process and make better choices.

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