NBA spread its wings in Africa

DaSagana Diop, second from left, at a Basketball Without Borders community event in Parcelles Assainies, the neighborhood in which he grew up in Dakar.

The NBA is known as being an international league with various players from around the world. There has been a huge increase in players from Europe and South America in the last 10 years. Now it seems the league might get its next influx of foreign star players players from Africa.

The basketball court, DeSagana Diop explains, is in Parcelles Assainies, the neighborhood in which he grew up in Dakar and the unlikely starting point for a nine-year N.B.A. career. Diop’s parents, he says, still live in the neighborhood.

Boys without a basketball use a soccer ball as a substitute at a court in Dakar.

The space was just dirt and trash before Diop dedicated the court this week. “Before we did it, it was nothing,” Diop said by telephone from Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, in the western part of Africa.

Its opening symbolizes another small step on a continent where the N.B.A. is attempting to take a great leap. The N.B.A. has extended its influence to Asia, and India is next on its ambitious docket. But the league has recently increased its efforts in Africa.

Besides some successes, like Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, who was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 1984, the continent has been a basin of mostly untapped or underdeveloped talent in a soccer-first region. The N.B.A. made pilgrimages to the continent and conducted camps and clinics, but the visits did not have a lasting impact.

This year, the N.B.A. named Dikembe Mutombo its global ambassador and in March opened its first office in Africa, in Johannesburg, under the guidance of Amadou Gallo Fall, a native of Senegal who discovered Diop and served as a Dallas Mavericks executive for a dozen years. And Basketball Without Borders, the international development and community outreach program, visited Senegal last week, the first time the camp was staged in Africa outside of Johannesburg.

“There’s a lot of talent here,” Diop said. “We’ve just got to do more camps and teach the game more and more. They’ve got a lot of athletes. They’ve just got to learn the basics. Shooting, jumping, passing, and it’s going to help the game of basketball.”

Diop led a contingent of N.B.A. personnel to Dakar that included his fellow African-born players Hasheem Thabeet and Luc Mbah a Moute and the Knicks’ Danilo Gallinari of Italy and Ronny Turiaf of France. The players and a number of N.B.A. officials hosted 60 of the continent’s top teenage players who represented countries from Angola to Zambia.

Diop views himself from the same prism as many of his campers. He is luckier than most and did not scour for his next meal. His father was a high school principal and his mother a teacher. But like some of the campers, Diop ventured into basketball only after he grew too tall for soccer. Fall discovered Diop and funneled him to the United States and the high school basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, the school Carmelo Anthony attended. Diop progressed on the basketball court and, even more important, in the classroom. He was Oak Hill’s valedictorian.

“He just needed to be given the tools, but you could tell that he had a lot of upside,” Fall said. “It was just a question of if he could get to the right place to learn the game.”

Diop entered the N.B.A. as an athlete with raw skills but plenty of upside. The Cleveland Cavaliers drafted him with the eighth overall pick in 2001, only four years after he first started to play the game.

In four seasons with Cleveland, Diop was deemed a bust. The learning curve had proved high. He resuscitated his career by contributing to a finals-bound Dallas Mavericks squad and is now a reserve center with the Charlotte Bobcats. Diop sometimes wonders if he would be a star player with better tutelage as a youth. Fall, a former microbiologist who is also from Senegal and played at the University of the District of Columbia, wonders the same thing. While he once sought to export players to learn the game, Fall now wants Africa to serve as the learning ground.

“You see so many people here who don’t have the fortunes of learning or developing their skills, and their talents go to waste,” Fall said. “That’s why we’re so happy to impact basketball at the ground-roots level and to teach young people that they don’t have to necessarily go somewhere else to learn their skills.”

Diop has made the trek back almost annually. In 2003, he and Fall started the Seeds Academy in Senegal, an acronym for Sports for Education and Economic Development. Diop is quick to point out that basketball is only one aspect of life that he teaches.

“It’s not just about basketball,” he said. “It’s about life in general. Not everybody is going to make it to the N.B.A. I want to help teach them that they can be anything. They can be teachers. They can be doctors.”

Some, though, do advance in the game. Diop can still recall a lanky and athletic Mbah a Moute at the camp in 2003. “Now I’m playing against him in the N.B.A.,” he said with a chuckle. “How crazy is that?”

Perhaps, it was once far-fetched. Now such progress is rooted in reality. Two other products from the Basketball Without Borders program in Africa — Christian Eyenga, the Cavaliers’ 2009 first-round draft selection, and Solomon Alabi of the Raptors — signed their N.B.A. contracts this summer.

The signings were more inroads in the search not for symbolic gestures but for meaningful influence and development.

“Everybody wants to be associated with something special,” Fall said. “We all hold dear to our heart where we are from, and basketball is a huge tool that can impact the community.”

Another article about this time about Eritrea. The dreams of young players trying to leave and come to the US.

For more information check out Basketball without Borders Africa.

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One comment

  1. It’s good to see that the league is finding ways to reach out to their fans. Though I know it takes a lot of effort, but I’m pretty sure that the fans recognize and appreciate it.

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