In the land of soccer, NBA eyes African inroads

There are very few basketball courts in Senegal. Despite the lack of resources, the NBA says Africa has one of the globe’s greatest reserves of untapped talent.

DAKAR, Senegal _ On a rectangle of dirt separating two arms of a congested highway, a game of soccer is under way _ just as it is every day in cities throughout Africa. Not far away, a team of coaches from the NBA is trying to expand the continent’s options.

For the eighth consecutive year, and the first time in Senegal, coaches from the NBA are mentoring 60 of Africa’s best players during the annual Basketball Without Borders camp, hoping to raise the profile of a sport that lags far behind soccer across much of the continent.

“We are here and we are making an investment in Africa,” said Senegalese native Amadou Gallo Fall, the NBA’s vice president of development in Africa. “There are 6-foot-8 soccer players out there that don’t know that there is another sport where their height is actually a positive.

“Our goal is to see more kids bouncing than kicking the ball.”

In Senegal, however, there are so few basketball courts that NBA officials say most cities and towns outside Dakar can consider themselves lucky if they have even one. Many players practice dunks with a soccer ball because basketballs are scarce and expensive.

Despite the lack of resources, the NBA says Africa has one of the globe’s greatest reserves of untapped talent.

Since 1984, 25 players from Africa have made it to the NBA _ five times more than from China, which was considered the next talent pipeline after Yao Ming’s meteoric rise, according to NBA senior vice president of basketball operations-international Kim Bohuny. And last year, a count performed by The Associated Press found more than 170 African players at U.S. colleges, junior colleges and universities during the 2008-09 season.

“We’re just starting to tap into that potential,” Bohuny said.

This year, the 60 players from 22 countries represent a cross-section of the challenges faced by those attempting to play basketball on a continent where soccer is not only the most popular sport but also a way out of poverty. For years, one of the largest billboards in Dakar featured Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf in an ad for Tigo, a major cell phone provider. Barefoot boys throughout the city play in alleyways, on highway medians and on the beach in the hopes of being discovered by a scout and getting a chance at a better life.

Cedric Amegah, a lanky teenager from Burkina Faso who attended the camp, said his parents are constantly trying to reorient him toward soccer.

“When me and my friends go to shoot hoops, our parents are always saying, ‘No. Don’t play basketball. Play soccer,”’ he said.

Among the messages that the NBA camp is hoping to project is that basketball can be just as lucrative.

On the opening day of the camp last Thursday, the players and officials that took turns at the podium were walking examples of success, such as the 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo, originally from Congo, who is considered one of the league’s greatest defensive players of all time. He used his NBA earnings to finance a $29 million hospital in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital where he grew up.

Other NBA players at the clinic included Charlotte Bobcats center DeSagana Diop, who grew up in a gritty Dakar suburb where the only place to practice was a sandy court that made it nearly impossible to dribble, and Memphis Grizzlies center Hasheem Thabeet of Tanzania, the second pick in the 2009 draft.

Yet for the young players attending this year’s camp, perhaps the most convincing proof of the opportunities that lie ahead are the NBA players who were discovered at past Basketball Without Borders camps. They include Luc Mbah a Moute, who understood only a few words of English when he attended the first NBA camp held in Africa in Johannesburg in 2003.

Mbah a Moute, a native of the French-speaking part of Cameroon, used the contacts he made at the camp to win a scholarship to the Montverde Academy in Florida and then went on to UCLA before being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Hoping more and more Africans will get that chance, the NBA has opened its first permanent office in Africa, based in Johannesburg, in March.

Chukwudi Maduabum, a 19-year-old Nigerian who is just shy of 7 feet, said his first sport was soccer but every year as he got taller, his long limbs got progressively more in his way until he was tripping over the other players. Still it was hard to leave his favorite sport.

“I got taller and taller. And then it didn’t work out anymore,” Maduabum said. “And then I found basketball.”

Because it is still relatively difficult for boys to take up basketball in the land of soccer, Fall said those who do often end up doing playing it with passion.

He points to his own struggle to learn the game as an example.

In the regional capital of Kaolack, in central Senegal where his family lived, Fall said there was a single hoop, and it was inside a walled compound.

The then-teenager would scale the wall to get inside and only had a limited amount of time to practice before a guard came running. Each time he was beaten with a stick _ and yet he kept coming back for more.

Fall went on to play center for the University of the District of Columbia, then spent 12 years as director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks.

“I’m a scout at heart and I’m telling you the potential here is greater than anywhere in the world,” Fall said. “There is a Michael Jordan in every neighborhood waiting to be discovered.”

Leave a Reply