Johannesburg, South Africa - If you were here to see Bismack Biyombo and Luol Deng celebrate their team's 20-plus point drubbing of their opponent with countless leaping high fives and howls, you'd think they had just won their first NBA Championship together. Except in this game, neither Biyombo (who recently signed with the Toronto Raptors) and Deng (who plays for the Miami Heat) were playing. Nor were they even coaching. Instead they were assistant-coaching (read: cheerleading) for head coach David Fizdale's "San Antonio Spurs" Basketball Without Borders Africa squad, a collection of 10 African teenagers who - along with 50 other African teenagers from all over this vast continent - had the good fortune of being selected to attend this summer's NBA Basketball Without Borders Africa camp.
Fizdale's squad - drafted Tuesday night in a makeshift War Room at our hotel here that included Gregg Popovich, R.C. Buford, Lionel Hollins, Mike Budenholzer, Monty Williams, Brad Stevens, Masai Ujiri and top NBA scouts and assistant coaches (like Fizdale) - dominated the two-day tournament which took place after a series of skills workouts with those coaches and NBA players like Biyombo and Deng. The Basketball Without Borders version of the Spurs handsomely winning the tournament shouldn't be that surprising considering that the real San Antonio Spurs cover Africa in detail, just as they do every other country on the planet it seems. (That's how you win NBA Championships with nine foreign-born players on your team!)
But what was surprising, for me at least, was to witness firsthand the unbridled enthusiasm and optimism the African-born NBA players like Biyombo and Deng brought to the camp, along with genuine affection for the teenage campers themselves. It's as if giving back to their home continent is in their collective DNA, regardless of which African country they call home.
Bismack Biyombo, of the Toronto Raptors, cheering on basketball campers.
Since 2003, the NBA has been hosting Basketball Without Borders camps here in Johannesburg (save for a one year detour to Dakar, Senegal) for thousands of boys and girls from across the African continent. In 2011, as a guest of then-Denver Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri's and NBA Africa's Managing Director Amadou Fall, I had the privilege of attending the camp and documented what an unforgettable experience it was for me and the other attendees. But with 2011 being a lockout summer, the NBA was only able to bring retired legends to Johannesburg, so I didn't get to see the African-born NBA stars interact directly with the campers. With the African-born players present, the camp takes on an entirely different dynamic. That's what happens when your heroes are right in front you teaching you lessons on basketball and life.
And as I saw in 2011, the interaction between NBA coaches and these young campers is equally inspiring ... especially when those coaches are named Popovich, Budenholzer, Hollins and Stevens. Four of the best in the NBA coaching business today. Watching the legendarily curmudgeonly Popovich engage with the young campers was especially a treat as it was clear that Coach Pop is much more comfortable with a bunch of African teenagers than he has ever been with media that covers the Spurs and the NBA (and frankly, can you blame him?).
San Antonio Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich instructing camp attendees.
Back in 2011, I remember the dream that Fall, Ujiri and others here with the NBA had: to host the first ever exhibition game with active NBA players in Africa. That dream became a reality on Saturday afternoon, Aug. 1st, at Johannesburg's Ellis Park Arena; when 10 African-born or African-heritage NBA players went head-to-head with 10 NBA stars, including Chris Paul, Marc and Paul Gasol, Bradley Beal, Jeff Green and the Denver Nuggets own Kenneth Faried.
And watching the energy that Biyombo (born in the Congo) and Deng (South Sudan) brought to the game, along with teammates like Festus Ezeli (Nigeria), Giannis Antetokounmpou (Greece/Nigeria), Boris Diaw (France/Senegal) and Gorgui Dieng (Senegal), the enthusiasm exhibited by these NBA stars during the campers tournament two days earlier made a lot of sense. For these African NBA stars, this was their pinnacle moment to shine in front of five thousand fans in an African stadium and millions more across their home continent watching live on television. But it was equally important for them to engage with tomorrow's African stars, especially for those like Dieng and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who are Basketball Without Borders Africa alums.
I don't know how the game played out on live television via a simulcast on ESPN with announcers who weren't even there in person, but inside the Ellis Park Arena - located in a rundown area of Johannesburg that clearly missed the 2010 World Cup infrastructure and cleanup windfall - the energy was indescribably palpable. Most, if not all, of the ticket-buying attendees had never seen an NBA player perform live, something we in Denver and other NBA cities take for granted.
And to the NBA's credit, everything was done just right on game day. First, the Basketball Without Borders All-Star campers got to perform on the imported regulation NBA floor, which included a halftime three-point shootout won by Antetokounmpo's 16 year old little brother (who looks like he could be as good as his supremely talented older brother). Following the game, Fall, Ujiri and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver addressed the campers privately, gave them inspirational ideas for their futures and even took questions from the campers.
Commissioner Silver in particular made it a point to tell the campers that even though many of them may not get the opportunity to play in the NBA, he encouraged them to use basketball as a tool to get a better education and lead others in life and business. And Ujiri re-iterated the lessons from his own life story, that even if you're not good enough to play in the NBA it doesn't mean you can't be a part of the sport professionally. (In fact, three African-born agents were in attendance at the camp this year ... pretty cool!)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver applauding the campers' efforts.
As Commissioner Silver, Fall and Ujiri wrapped up with the campers, I walked down to the court to watch "Team World" and "Team Africa" warm up. And, again, the NBA did things just right. Up in the rafters of Ellis Park Arena hung three NBA jerseys: those of Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Manute Bol. A worthy homage to three larger-than-life (literally and figuratively) African-born NBA pioneers. If you grew up on 1980s/90s NBA basketball like me, you vividly remember the impact those three had on the NBA. Tragically, Bol died several years ago due to complications from kidney failure and with Bol's passing went one of the NBA's - and Africa's - great humanitarians.
Following warmups, the NBA players gathered for the singing of the African Union anthem, the United States national anthem and South Africa's beautiful national anthem, composed in 1994 soon after Nelson Mandela was democratically elected as South Africa's first-ever black president; after serving 27 years in prison. Mandela's legacy looms large for all Africans, and even though none of the Team Africa players hail from South Africa I can only imagine what they were thinking as the national anthem for South Africa was sung in native language and then English by two girls: one black, one white. (On a side note, according to the agents and scouts here it's going to be a long time before we see a South African NBA player. "Why?" I asked. "Because they're too short!" was the standard reply.)
With the singing of the anthems over and the game about to begin, the players for Team World and Team Africa took off their warmups and - yet again - the NBA did things just right by placing their home country's flag under their jersey numbers on the uniform backs.
And the long-awaited first NBA game in Africa is officially underway!
The game itself was a fun one to watch by exhibition or All-Star game standards. Team Africa, understandably more energetic and inspired than their Team World counterparts, got out to a huge lead early, and held on to the lead for the entire first half. But their inspired play wasn't the biggest highlight of the first half - that belonged to the surprising emergence of Olajuwon and Mutombo wearing their retro Rockets and Nuggets uniforms, respectively. And those two legends did what those two do best: a dream shake by Olajuwon that totally faked out Team World's Nikola Vucevic (who clearly doesn't know his NBA history!) and a few blocked shots by Mutombo, followed by his signature finger wag. The mere presence of Nigeria's Olajuwon and Congo's Mutombo electrified the crown, and when they stood on the court you could see tears in many of the spectators' eyes.
Nuggets legend Dikembe Mutomo was all smiles as he checks into the game and greets Luc Mbah a Moute, as Chris Paul, Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried, and Luol Deng look on.
After Olajuwon and Mutombo's cameo and the halftime festivities concluded, the game got serious. Ujiri told me during the first half rout of Team World by Team Africa that "...at some point, Chris Paul is going to get competitive and this game is going to get close," and that's exactly what happened, thanks in large part to Team World's Jeff Green lighting it up with multiple three pointers. The game not only got close but Team World jumped out to a sizable fourth quarter lead before Team Africa crawled back within an earshot of victory. But it wasn't meant to be for Team Africa as Team World bested them by a mere four points (101-97).
Have I mentioned yet that the NBA does things just right? Okay, one last time. When the game was over, Deng and Paul were presented with The Manute Bol Most Valuable Player Award, rightly named after the man who did so much for his home country of Sudan before passing away just five years ago. And as soon as the award ceremony wrapped up, the Team Africa players stayed on the court for as long as they could to take photos with fans, family members and media personnel alike. It was if they never wanted to get off that court.
In 2011, my take away from the Basketball Without Borders Africa experience was how remarkable the camaraderie was among the NBA's international family - players, coaches, scouts, executives, partners and guests alike. Fall and Ujiri's global network of friends and colleagues involved in the game goes way beyond Africa, and it's a treat to see that up close. (It should be noted that the Nuggets GM Tim Connelly - a seasoned international scout himself - is beloved by everyone in this global basketball circle. Whenever I mentioned that I was from Denver someone would say something like: "Tell Tim hello for me. He's the best!")
My take away from this year's camp and the historic game that followed is that the camaraderie among this group remains at an all-time high, but something else is happening here. Africa has arrived. When the NBA can put 10 active African players on a single court (without the exceptionally talented Serge Ibaka, who is still rehabbing an injury) and have them go toe-to-toe with a collection of NBA All-Stars and near All-Stars, it's a microcosm example of where Africa stands today in the global spectrum. Africa no longer needs to apologize for being Africa, but instead can stand tall among its global peers in both business and sport. Yes, Africa is not without its challenges (some of which I detailed last October when discussing the NBA's involvement in the anti-poaching movement), but the story is no longer that "Africa's future is bright" ... it's that Africa's PRESENT is bright.
Going back to 2003, when the first-ever Basketball Without Borders Africa camp was conducted, Fall, Ujiri, Commissioner Silver and others at the NBA dared to dream that this day would come, and they've invested millions upon millions of dollars to back that vision. I see no reason for this first-ever exhibition game not to become an annual event and won't be the least surprised when the NBA plays regular season games on the continent within the next five years. While addressing the campers here, Commissioner Silver said that "multiple African countries" contacted him in just the one day before Saturday's exhibition wanting to host games themselves. What happened in Johannesburg on Saturday may soon happen in Dakar, Luanda, Kinshasa and Lagos, all hotbeds for hoops thanks to the efforts of the Senegalese Fall, the Congolese Mutombo, the Nigerian Ujiri and other basketball ambassadors and players from the entire African continent.
And thanks to today's ambassadors - like Deng, Biyombo, Diaw, Ibaka and Antetokounmpo - tomorrow's ambassadors are being developed en masse right before our eyes. One of them, I hope, will be the Nuggets own Emmanuel Mudiay - born and raised in the Congo before coming to the United States before his 10th birthday. Like Olajuwon, Mutombo, Bol and Deng before him, Mudiay has the opportunity to be a transcendent African star and continue a legacy of giving back that began with Olajuwon over 30 years ago. But unlike his predecessors from the 80s and 90s era NBA, Mudiay is going to find that the competition for the NBA's "Best African Born Player" is going to be stiff throughout his career.
Emmanuel Mudiay in a Mutombo skyline jersey. Looks like he may sit out tonight. pic.twitter.com/RoJ60CAcA4— Charlie Yao (@skitalicious) July 18, 2015
Charlie Yao of Roundball Mining Company captured this photo of Mudiay at Las Vegas Summer League.
As Ujiri said at the week's final evening reception long after the game was over, "This doesn't end here. Everything we've done here must continue. And I expect to see all of Team Africa at All-Star [Weekend] in Toronto next year. As All-Stars!"
That might sound like a crazy dream today. But a few years ago it took another crazy dream and those willing to make it happen that brought the NBA to where it is today in Africa.
Hakeem Olajuwon taking some time to talk to The Big Stiff after a day of helping basketball campers.
Gregg Popovich offering some instruction to a young hooper.
Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli was an engaging personality, showing his lighter side here.