It began, as so many momentous occasions do, with a massage.

A few months ago, agent Steve Kauffman was getting the kinks worked out when his masseuse - yes, she's also an actress - mentioned the rapidly deteriorating situation in Sudan. The murders of thousands of citizens by the country's own government in the Darfur region had been going on for years, but like most Americans, Kauffman didn't know much about it.

"But I said to myself, 'Holy Whatever,' " Kauffman recalled by telephone Friday. "I knew about Hotel Rwanda. But I went online that night and started reading."

A few days later, Kauffman was talking with one of his clients, Cavaliers forward Ira Newble. Kauffman mentioned the massage; Newble mentioned that he'd read an article about Darfur in USA Today and had been online himself learning about the genocide. The two started talking about whether there was something they could do.

"Ira is a deeper thinker and reads more than anybody I know," Kauffman said. "He knew about it. And he started educating me a little bit about it."

What Newble already knew was that the People's Republic of China played a pivotal role in the slaughter. According to the Web site dreamfordarfur.org, China has provided $10 billion in economic aid to the Sudanese government, buying oil and providing the Sudanese government with weapons and weapons technology.

Those weapons and the oil money are then used by the Janjaweed, perhaps the most lethal of the Sudanese militias, which has waged unrelenting attacks on the non-Arab Muslim farmers throughout the country for the last five years.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch said that more than 200,000 people have been killed by the Janjaweed since 2003, more than two million people are displaced and homeless, and another two million have been adversely impacted by the economic displacement created, with the conflict spilling into neighboring Chad.

Newble then e-mailed Eric Reeves, an English professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and a preeminent scholar on Darfur, who'd been quoted in the USA Today article.

With China hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, drawing attention to the China-Sudan link would be a public-relations nightmare for the host country; Reeves coined the term "Genocide Olympics" to bring it into stark focus.

Advocates say the Chinese, who are one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, have blocked implementation of a resolution passed last August that calls for a peacekeeping force of more than 22,000 soldiers to be put on the ground in Darfur to stop the fighting. (On Friday, China's foreign minister decried "a handful of people trying to politicize the Olympic Games.")

Reeves suggested that Newble write an open letter, and Newble quickly got the support and signatures of most of his teammates. The letter states that "China cannot be a legitimate host to the premier international event in the sporting world - the Summer Olympic Games - while it remains complicit in the terrible suffering and destruction that continues to this day."

Only two players declined to sign: LeBron James and Damon Jones. James, who has endorsement deals in China, told reporters he wasn't educated enough on the issue to take a stand one way or the other. Jones, who has a deal with a leading Chinese sportswear manufacturer, has declined to comment.

"Ira Newble is really just a great human being," Reeves said by telephone. "On this occasion, there's nothing contrived about it. This is the real deal. This is a professional athlete being moved by a critical international issue."

Reeves and Newble now correspond regularly by e-mail.

"We set up the terms of how many points I get in the one-on-one," Reeves said. "I don't think I got enough."

Newble's letter is one small step among thousands. But it is something. It's rare to see an NBA player, or any professional athlete these days, thinking about something other than endorsements or endangering endorsements by taking a stand. A few, like the Suns' Steve Nash and the Wizards' Etan Thomas, have done so. But not many.

Kauffman is trying to take it further by contacting other NBA players, whether or not they're his clients, to see if they'll join the letter. He's also spoken with the players' unions in basketball, the NFL and Major League Baseball to see if they'll come aboard.

"This isn't a Democratic or Republican issue," Kauffman said. "It's like all of us feel like I did eight or nine months ago. As soon as I learned, how can you not care?"

Contact staff writer David Aldridge at 215-854-5516 or daldridge@phillynews.com.