When your favorite NBA team's general manager and the head of the NBA's Africa program invite you to tag along on a trip to Madagascar and South Africa, you don't pass on the opportunity.
Several years before I ever met Masai Ujiri, I met an NBA executive for the Dallas Mavericks named Amadou Gallo Fall while the Nuggets were routing the Mavericks in the 2009 playoffs. Fall, a native of Senegal, was already making plans for his annual trip back to Africa to run the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program, a series of overseas camps that gives basketball-loving kids worldwide the opportunity to meet NBA stars while improving their on-court skills.
Having myself long had a fascination with all-things-Africa ... and basketball ... I casually mentioned to Fall that he should bring me over for one of the camps and that I would cover it for Denver Stiffs and SBNation.com. Instead of laughing off my suggestion, Fall urged me to come over that summer and even emailed me before the camp took place (in Tripoli that year) to re-extend the invite. Regrettably, I wasn't able to make the trip as I had just booked an animation project for the NFL and with football season fast approaching, it was impossible to make an across-the-world journey in late August. At the time, I vowed to travel to Africa the following summer to meet up Fall and attend the 2010 camp.
I indeed made my way to Africa the following summer, but for a very different sport than basketball: soccer. As some of our fellow Stiffs know, I had the good fortune of attending the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and traveled from there to Kenya and Rwanda. It would be the greatest overseas trip of my life, even with no basketball included, and I couldn't wait to get back to Africa again.
Named the NBA's point man in Africa and the head of the NBA's Africa program right before the World Cup came to South Africa, Fall and I would again exchange emails and texts and attempt to meet up. But I was in Cape Town while Fall was Johannesburg, and a reunion on African soil just never materialized. We have continued to keep in touch since, with an eye toward me possibly coming to Africa again in 2011 for one the NBA's camps. But with the demands of my new career in Denver, a return trip to Africa this summer seemed impossible a year ago.
Then the Nuggets hired Masai Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, a director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program in Africa and - like Fall - an ambassador for all things basketball/NBA when it comes to Africa.
Ujiri and I met soon after I returned from my amazing trip in the summer of 2010, and I think we spent about 15 minutes talking basketball and over an hour talking Africa - politics, history, current events and our recent travels. To trade or not to trade Carmelo Anthony suddenly didn't seem all that important during that first conversation. And just as our mutual friend heading up the NBA's Africa office had done a year earlier, Ujiri started urging me to come to their 2011 program, to be held in early September in Johannesburg. This time I said I was "in" and enthusiastically emailed Fall to confirm it.
But with Ujiri taking on the giant responsibility of running the Nuggets as the NBA's youngest general manager and having to trade the best Nugget since Alex English to boot, we didn't speak much during the season. And with the NBA's lockout looming, it was unclear if the NBA would even host their summer Africa camps and their Basketball Without Borders program at all this summer, so I didn't give it much thought.
We're all familiar with what happened since. Ujiri - along with new Nuggets owner Josh Kroenke - pulled off a great trade for Melo, the Nuggets made an inspiring end-of-season run, got bounced from the playoffs' first round and now we're in lockout hell with no imminent end in sight.
A little while after the Nuggets exited from the 2011 playoffs and the lockout ensued, Ujiri and I got back in touch with each other to talk Africa and the invitation to come to Basketball Without Borders was re-extended ... this time with a twist. Not only would the trip include the NBA's camp from September 1st-4th in Johannesburg, but we'd first attend the FIBA Africa Championships (i.e. African Olympic qualifier) in Antananarivo, Madagascar.
That's right, Madagascar.
So I shuffled my schedule, purchased my tickets and hotel reservations, and will depart Denver on Tuesday night on a red-eye to New York that will eventually lead me to Antananarivo on Thursday afternoon. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I couldn't pass up. Not only will I be fulfilling a promise I made to Fall a few years ago and Ujiri last year, but I get to visit a country that's always been high on my list in Madagascar. The flight is going to be brutal (almost 24 hours of flying straight ... in coach), but the experience will be unforgettable.
There aren't a lot of silver linings to this lockout, other than the great classic games being shown regularly on NBATV and the NBA continuing its youth camps around the globe. Already this summer the NBA has held camps for aspiring basketball players in Slovenia, Brazil and Kenya (run by Fall and Ujiri) with famous retired NBA players like Dominique Wilkins, Alex English, Glen Rice and Sam Perkins filling in for Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh and Dirk Nowitzki, last summer's participants. But the signature camp will take place in Johannesburg in early September when Africa's elite youth players come together for three days of coaching and training by Fall, Ujiri and several retired NBA stars. And I'll have the privilege of being there ... and sharing it with you.
Those of us who are NBA obsessed hate this lockout. It has turned our favorite sport into a torturous lesson on labor law and collective bargaining negotiations with spoiled rotten millionaires pitted against ruthlessly shrewd billionaires. But I have a hunch that the hundreds of kids I'm going to meet in Africa these next two weeks - both those playing in the FIBA Africa Championships for a shot at Olympic glory and those attending Fall and Ujiri's camp - will remind us all of why we love this game so much in the first place.
And if I have to travel to the other side of the world just to capture that, this trip will be well worth it.