Coming to America: Africans playing hoops in US

  • Follow NBA

MARIETTA, Ga. - Growing up in Nigeria, Robert Ojeah fretted over the demands of everyday life, the sort of things that shouldn't be a burden to a child.

Would he have a roof over his head that night? What was he going to do for money? Where was his next meal coming from?

"We would catch animals. Cook them, roast them, eat them," he said. "Rabbits. Snakes. Squirrels."

No matter what life dealt him, Ojeah kept growing. And growing. All the way up to 6-foot-10, with muscles upon muscles on a hard-as-a-rock, 220-pound body that's still only 16 years old.

Meet basketball's new wave.

At the top is Tanzania's Hasheem Thabeet, a 7-2 center who played at UConn and is expected to be one of the top picks in Thursday's NBA draft.

He and Ojeah are part of a vanguard of African youngsters who have found their way, through hoops, from a continent mired in poverty to America - landing on the rosters of high school, AAU and college teams across the land.

The sacrifices are immense. These players are little more than children when they leave behind family and friends, landing in a new country, a new culture. But as difficult as the journey is, the rewards can be even greater. They inspire many to try.

"When you go back to Africa with a degree from an American school, you are somebody," said Dikembe Mutombo, one of the earliest of the African exports, whose long NBA career finally ended last month at age 42 when he injured his knee in a playoff game with the Houston Rockets.

At the highest level, the numbers are still minuscule: seven native Africans (including Chicago's Luol Deng, who left Sudan to escape a civil war and considers himself British) were in the NBA this season, making up less than 2 percent of the league's total players.

Look further, though. A count by The Associated Press culled from school and basketball Web sites found more than 170 African players at U.S. junior colleges, colleges and universities last season. Other sources show 100 players or so at the high school level, many placed at prep schools catering to international students.

Not all will make it to the NBA, of course, but the growing numbers will surely have a trickle-up effect.

"If I can do it, they can do it, too," said DJ Mbenga, a native of the Congo who won an NBA championship ring last week as an end-of-the-bench backup center for the Los Angeles Lakers. "When the opportunity opens up, you have to take it."

Mbenga had a relatively affluent childhood in the Congo, where his father worked in the government and could afford such luxuries as vacations to Europe. But when a new regime took control of the war-torn country, Mbenga's dad died under mysterious circumstances. His teenage son escaped a similar fate by fleeing to Belgium, which granted him political asylum.

In his adopted country, Mbenga discovered a new passion. Basketball helped him cope with his grief.

"It was a way for me to get away from everything," he said.

Back down the pipeline are players such as Solomon Alabi, a 7-1 Nigerian heading into his sophomore season at Florida State. Like most African youngsters, he started out playing soccer - by far the most popular sport on the continent.

"We didn't really have basketball," he said. "We only have one basketball court in the place I'm from and it's not really an organized basketball court. It was on the sand and we played soccer on the basketball court. It wasn't like level concrete or anything."

This is how it often starts, a kid falling in love with the game under the most inelegant of conditions. The path to the U.S. is never quite the same but follows the same general pattern: a local patron steers the prospect to an African camp, which could be sponsored by the NBA or a local player who made it out; the camp provides high-level instruction and a chance to get spotted by coaches and scouts; prep schools, financial aid and host families are arranged on the other side of the Atlantic.

Alabi went to a camp run by Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian who played collegiately at Montana State, professionally in Europe before taking over as director of global scouting for the Toronto Raptors. Alabi wound up with a scholarship to Montverde Academy, a private boarding school in central Florida, and lived with a host family on the weekends.

"It was difficult," said Alabi, who didn't even have a pair of basketball sneakers when he got to the Sunshine State. "The food and everything, communicating with people, it was hard. I was quiet all the time unless I was playing basketball and having fun."

The NBA has spread the game through its "Basketball Without Borders" program, which exposes promising youngsters from throughout the continent to the finer points of the sport at a camp in South Africa. This summer, the league is planning additional clinics in Kenya and Angola.

"Right now, they don't have the infrastructure," NBA commissioner David Stern said. Still, "there's an enormous amount of raw talent."

Ojeah started out playing soccer - he was a goalie - but switched to basketball when he was 13. His size got him invited to a camp attended by Linzy Davis, who runs Team Georgia Elite, a high-level AAU program in Atlanta.

Davis has turned the recruitment of African players into something of a specialty - developing crucial relationships, learning the ins and outs of local customs, becoming an expert on visa approval, which might be the most important step in the process.

If a player can't get out of Africa, there's little chance of fully developing his skills. Youth leagues, top-level coaches and basic infrastructure - courts, balls, uniforms - are all severely lacking.

Back in this country, Davis lines up financial aid at schools such as Mount Zion Christian Academy in Durham, N.C., which is where Ojeah goes to school.

While tuition and weekday board is usually provided by a prep school eager to boost its basketball stature or by a wealthy benefactor, Davis still has to dig deep out of his own pocket. He's driving players around the Southeast every weekend, or buying airline tickets for particularly long trips.

"I'm well into five figures on these kids," said Davis, who sells medical supplies and lab equipment and insists he gains no financial benefit from his work with the players. "I get nothing out of this other than the enjoyment of seeing them get to where they want to get to."

Amadou Gallo Fall, who played basketball at the University of District Columbia after being spotted by a Peace Corps worker at a camp in Tunisia, is now vice president of international affairs and director of scouting for the Dallas Mavericks.

He gives back to his native country through SEEDS - Sports for Education and Economic Development in Senegal - and recognizes the potential pitfalls of trying to reach America, everything from under-the-table payments to broken promises.

"We hear the stories," he said. "If there's no opportunity at all, if kids don't have a court, they don't have a basketball, they don't any shoes, certainly there's going to be a sense of despair and leaving at all costs. That's what people may prey on. Really, nobody should be surprised."

There's certainly the potential for academic abuse, since many Africans wind up at basketball-oriented prep schools. But plenty of kids seem genuinely committed to getting a good education, overcoming language and cultural barriers to play catch-up in the classroom.

"I will guarantee you one thing: If there are 300 kids, 298 of them will get their degrees if they are African kids," said Ujiri, a director for Basketball Without Borders in South Africa. "They have a direction in life. They have a goal."

They're linked to their homelands only by the occasional phone call or e-mail. Many players don't get to go home over summer break because they are honing their game at the AAU level, or doing extra schoolwork, or don't want to risk visa problems preventing them from coming back.

Talib Zanna, a 6-9 Nigerian who signed with Pitt after playing at Bishop McNamara High School near Washington, didn't even go back home when his father died.

"That was the saddest moment I've ever had," Zanna said. "I was playing this game because of him and (trying) to make him proud of me."

Hakeem Olajuwon, a Nigerian, was the first African to go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, led the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships and won an MVP award. Not far behind on the African popularity meter is Mutombo, one of the greatest defensive players in NBA history and just as well known for humanitarian efforts in his native Congo.

The growth of the African game might have been even greater if the two stars were in their prime now, rather than retired.

"We were very unlucky with Hakeem and Mutombo," Ujiri said. "They came along at a time when there wasn't that much exposure."

Maybe Thabeet, the UConn center, will fill that void. Or maybe someone else will come along in a few years, lifting up an entire continent.

One basket at a time.

---

AP Sports Writer Joseph White in Washington, Hank Kurz in Richmond, Va., and Chris Talbott in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.


Top headlines

ARC to honor 1956 championship team

Because the championship year of 1956 has never lost its glory in Richmond Academy football lore, the team will be honored Thursday at the third annual ARC Hall of Fame banquet, where 10 alumni ...
Search Augusta jobs