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In the land of soccer, NBA eyes African inroads

On a rectangle of dirt separating two arms of a congested highway, a game of football is under way, just as it is every day in cities throughout Africa. Not far away, a team of coaches from the NBA is trying to change that.

sports Updated: Aug 14, 2010 11:11 IST

On a rectangle of dirt separating two arms of a congested highway, a game of football is under way, just as it is every day in cities throughout Africa. Not far away, a team of coaches from the NBA is trying to change that.

For the eighth consecutive year and the first time in Senegal, coaches from the American basketball league are returning to mentor 60 of the continent's best players during the annual Basketball Without Borders camp, hoping to raise the profile of a sport that lags far behind the cult status of football in much of Africa. "We are here and we are making an investment in Africa," said Senegalese native Amadou Gallo Fall, the NBA's vice president of development in Africa.

"There are 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) soccer players out there that don't know that there is another sport where their height is actually a positive.

"Our goal is to see more kids bouncing than kicking the ball." In Senegal, however, there are so few basketball courts that NBA officials say most cities and towns outside Dakar can consider themselves lucky if they have even one. Many players spend years practicing dunks with a football, because basketballs are scarce and expensive.

Despite the lack of resources, the NBA says Africa has one of the globe's greatest reserves of untapped talent. Since 1984, 25 players from Africa have made it to the NBA, five times more than from China, which was considered the next talent pipeline after Yao Ming's meteoric rise, according to NBA senior vice president of basketball operations-international Kim Bohuny.

"We're just starting to tap into that potential," Bohuny said. This year, the 60 players from 22 countries represent a cross-section of the challenges faced by those attempting to play basketball in a continent where football is not only the most popular sport but also a way out. For years one of the largest billboards in Dakar featured Senegal striker El Hadji Diouf in an ad for Tigo, a major cell phone provider. Barefoot boys throughout the city play in alleyways, on highway medians and on the beach in the hopes of one day being discovered by a scout and a chance at a better life.

Cedric Amegah, a lanky teenager from Burkina Faso who attended the camp, said his parents are constantly trying to reorient him toward football.

"When me and my friends go to shoot hoops, our parents are always saying, 'No. Don't play basketball. Play soccer,"' he said. Among the messages that the NBA camp is hoping to project is that basketball can be just as lucrative.

On the opening day of the camp last Thursday, the players and officials that took turns at the podium were walking examples of success, like the 2.19-meter (7-foot-2) Dikembe Mutombo, originally from Congo, who is considered one of the greatest defensive players of all time. He used his NBA earnings to finance a $29 million hospital in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital where he grew up. Other NBA players at the clinic include Charlotte Bobcats center DeSagana Diop, who grew up in a gritty Dakar suburb where the only place to practice was a sandy court that made it nearly impossible to dribble, and Memphis Grizzlies center Hasheem Thabeet of Tanzania, the second pick in the 2009 NBA draft.

Yet for the 60 young players attending this year's camp, perhaps the most convincing proof of the opportunities that lie ahead are the NBA players that were themselves discovered at past Basketball Without Borders camps. They include Luc Mbah a Moute, who spoke so little English in 2003 when he attended the first NBA camp held in Africa at a facility in Johannesburg that he could understand only a few words.

Mbah a Moute, a native of the French-speaking part of Cameroon, used the contacts he made at the camp to win a scholarship to the Montverde Academy in Florida and then went on to UCLA before being drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks.

The NBA is hoping more and more Africans will get that chance, opening its first permanent office in Africa, based in Johannesburg, in March.

Chukwudi Maduabum, a 19-year-old Nigerian who is just shy of 7 feet, said his first sport was football but every year as he got taller, his long limbs got progressively more in his way until he was tripping over the other players. Still it was hard to leave his favorite sport, he said.

"I got taller and taller. And then it didn't work out anymore," Maduabum said. "And then I found basketball."

Fall said the fact that it is still relatively hard for boys to take up basketball in the land of football means those that do often end up doing it with passion.

He points to his own struggle to perfect the game. In the regional capital of Kaolack, in central Senegal where his family lived, Fall said there was a single hoop, and it was located inside a walled compound.

The then-teenager used to scale the wall to be able to get inside and only had a limited amount of time to practice before the guard came running. Each time he was beaten with a stick and yet he kept coming back for more.

Fall went on to play center for the University of the District of Columbia, then spent 12 years as director of player personnel for the Dallas Mavericks.

"I'm a scout at heart and I'm telling you the potential here is greater than anywhere in the world," Fall said. "There is a Michael Jordan in every neighborhood waiting to be discovered."

First Published: Aug 14, 2010 11:09 IST