JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The first ever NBA exhibition game will be played in South Africa on August 1st. The teams taking part will be know as Team World and Team Africa. The latter will consist entirely of players of first and second generation African descent. Luol Deng, Miami Heat star and South Sudanese native is set to be the captain for Team Africa.
“Coming from South Sudan and having participated in the Basketball Without Borders Africa camps in Johannesburg previously, I am truly honored to be part of this historic event,” said Deng in response to the announcement.
The exhibition game is part of a broader effort by the NBA and the International Basketball Foundation to popularize the game in Africa. All proceeds from the exhibition game will go towards the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in addition to other local charities.
There are multitudes of international organizations that are focused on providing humanitarian aid to Africa. The Giants of Africa program was created in 2003 by former Basketball Without Borders-Africa Director and current GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri. At first glance, an organization focused on providing basketball training to African youth may not garner a whole lot of international attention, but the Giants of Africa organization has been steadily growing.
The organization now hosts several camps in Africa. One “Top 50 Camp” which recruits promising young players ages 11-18 years old in Nigeria. The “Big Man Camp” invites prospects who are 6’8” or taller and teaches the fundamental aspects of the game. Giants of Africa, whose motto is “Basketball as a Tool”, also has a humanitarian focus. In addition to basketball drills and instruction in the camps, there is an emphasis on life skills off of the court and the importance of education.
Ujiri, a Nigerian native who grew up in the country, observed first hand the keen interest Africans had in the game of basketball. Additionally, he notes the substantial aptitude and talent being displayed. “I grew up there. I played there. I know how much talent there is. We have to concentrate on building facilities, establishing successful leagues and finding investors to help young players,” says Ujiri.
While programs like Giants of Africa certainly have an eye out for the next potential superstar, there are tertiary implications to tapping into Africa’s talent pool. The chances of making it to the NBA are certainly slim, but staying in school and focusing on basketball can provide youth a foundation for success. For those few who do succeed, they have the capability to make a substantial impact on the livelihood of their fellow countrymen.
By establishing training facilities and showcasing the successes of current and former players, the hope is that African youth will be inspired to focus on their education in hopes of achieving their dreams. While there have been NBA superstars from Africa in the past, these players did not have the same degree of global exposure modern stars have today.
“Imagine this day of Twitter and social media and satellite television, the way NBA has gone global, imagine Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe [Mutombo] at their peaks” says Uriji. One of the organization’s tactics promotes basketball instruction and training in Africa by using the exposure of former as well as current NBA players with African roots.
Dikembe Mutombo is one such former star who has used his career to give back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, his native country. Mutombo is the NBA’s Global Ambassador for UNICEF and in 1997, he started the Dikembe Motumbo Foundation which donates to local education organizations and health facilities. The foundation’s most noteworthy achievement is the construction of the Biambe Marie Mutombo Hospital. The hospital is dedicated to his late mother and currently employs hundreds of people and has treated over 100,000 patients.
Like many other African NBA players, Luol Deng has started his own charity organization that fund raises for aid and relief efforts in his native South Sudan. In June 2014, Luol Deng initiated a social media fundraising campaign to provide assistance for the Save the Children organization. Deng pledged to be the first contributor donating $30,000. Save the Children works to help South Sudanese children who have been displaced by working to reunite them with their families, building community centers, and rehabilitation clinics.
In April 2014, Oklahoma City Thunder star Serge Ibaka announced a partnership with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Ibaka hails from the Republic of Congo and he has personally pledged over $315,000 to help fundraise the “UNICEF Gets Boys & Girls in the Game” project. UNICEF estimates that there are thousands of children living on the streets of Brazzaville and this project’s goal is to renovate and expand the efforts of multiple youth organizations. Additionally, Ibaka pledged to donate $554 for every shot he blocked in the 2014 NBA playoffs. Ibaka went on to block 42 shots during the course of the playoffs and raised $23,268. Ibaka also set up his own foundation to give back to his native country.
Since World Champion Hakeem Olajuwon was drafted first overall in 1984, there have been 35 first or second generation African NBA players. It has been demonstrated that many of the African players, both current and former, had to overcome extremely adverse situations to accomplish their dreams of playing basketball in America. Often times being forced to flee their home countries, these factors have featured prominently in their lives and endeavors outside their careers. Many of these players have dedicated and will continue to dedicate their time and efforts towards improving the lives of people from their native countries and communities.
– Frasier Petersen