Andrew Feinstein of SBNation.com and SB Nation's Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs traveled to Madagascar with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and NBA Africa director Amadou Gallo Fall to see a round of the 2011 FIBA Africa Championship and learn about the past, present and future of African basketball. This is Andrew's first report.
ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR -- Flying from Denver to Antananarivo, Madagascar, is an awfully long way to go to watch a few basketball games. But, of course, I'm here for more than just the basketball.
When flying into Madagascar after a short stopover in Johannesburg, the first thing you notice as your airplane descends towards the ground is the absence of trees. When we think of Madagascar we think of a lush, forested island filled with lemurs, chameleons and snakes. Instead you see nothing but brown-hued farms and rice fields, as 90 percent (that's not a typo) of the island's forests have been slashed and burned for farming over the past 200 or so years. The remaining wildlife -- some of which I'm hoping to see when I get lost in the forest east of Antananarivo (referred to as Tana) beginning Sunday -- has been relegated to a few protected national parks.
Madagascar's 22 million people have to live somewhere, but like so many other third-world places I've visited, this country's remarkable biodiversity is shrinking slowly into nothingness.
With the trees having all but vanished, the tallest things I saw were the players stepping onto the FIBA Afrobasket court Thursday evening at Tana's Palais des Sports, the host venue for this 26th incarnation of FIBA Africa's premier biennial event. Winding through the smoggy and overcrowded streets of Tana in a taxi without seatbelts, sitting next to Toronto Raptors assistant general manager Marc Eversley, I arrived at the tail end of Cote d'Ivoire's quarterfinal upset over Senegal. Upon entry into the stadium (where no one asked for my ticket, which was good because I didn't have one) I found my host for both FIBA Afrobasket and the NBA's upcoming Basketball Without Borders camp, Senegalese native and former Dallas Mavericks vice president Amadou Gallo Fall, sulking in his chair as his countrymen fell to defeat. But as soon as he saw Marc and myself, Amadou was able to put his disappointment aside and greet us warmly as he always does.
Sitting near Amadou was our other host, Denver Nuggets general manager and Nigerian native Masai Ujiri. Having arrived a day before us, Masai seemed to have recovered from his jet lag and looked like a kid in a candy store. I've gotten to know Masai since he took the GM job in Denver a year ago, but at games I'm used to seeing him standing in the Pepsi Center, arms folded with a serious look on his face ... as if every Nuggets possession represents a carefully thought out chess move for him. Here in Tana, I'm seeing a different side of Masai. Elated from watching his countrymen defeat the Central African Republic earlier in the day, Masai is all smiles and enthusiastically explains to Marc and I everything we need to know about African basketball: the players (virtually all of whom played or play in the NCAA and professionally in Africa), the coaches, the federations, the history and so on.
There are no better ambassadors to Africa for the NBA -- and the overall sport of basketball in Africa for that matter -- than Amadou and Masai, both of whom are tall in stature but have hearts bigger than their physical frames. Both were damn good players in their youth -- Amadou played for Senegal, Masai for Nigeria -- but neither were good enough to make it to the NBA. Like most African players, Amadou and Masai may have had the physical gifts to someday become NBA players, but they started playing the game too late.
And that has always been the crux of the issue with African basketball: the talent might be there throughout the continent, but it has to be nurtured earlier in the lives of basketball-playing kids. There are only so many Hakeem Olajuwons, Dikembe Mutombos and Hasheem Thabeets who can pick up a basketball as a teenager and find themselves in the NBA. And in those cases it helped that they're really, really tall. With Serge Ibaka, Luol Deng and Luc Mbah a Moute having become productive NBA players, we're finally seeing some African forwards breakthrough to the big league, but I suspect we're still a ways off from having a starting NBA point guard come from Africa. American players like Derrick Rose or Deron Williams probably had basketballs in their cribs. Such is not the case throughout Africa, where soccer is the dominant sport as soccer requires virtually nothing in terms of facilities (you can play soccer in a dirt field between two tin cans, not so with basketball).
For several years, and more now than ever, Amadou and Masai have made it their central mission to get kids throughout Africa playing basketball earlier. As Amadou said in the joint FIBA/NBA press conference on Friday: if small European countries like Slovenia can produce NBA players, why not Africa?
To foster an interest in basketball early in kids' lives and get Africa's best young players the coaching they desperately need, Amadou and Masai run camps all over the continent, culminating with their signature Basketball Without Borders camp, taking place this Thursday in Johannesburg. The eighth time BWB has been hosted in Johannesburg, next week's camp will feature 60 campers between 18-24 years old meeting NBA legends like Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning while getting coached by current NBA coaches and executives.
Seeing the African teams up close in the FIBA Afrobasket quarterfinals, I share Amadou and Masai's vision for getting more African players onto the world's grandest basketball stage. The raw talent is here and I saw some splendid basketball.
Watching African powerhouse Angola (winner of every FIBA Afrobasket championship except one since 1989) fend off upstart Cameroon in an overtime thriller on Thursday night, I felt like I was watching 10 NBA-possible players on the floor. The centers are long and wide with good around-the-basket instincts. The shooting guards can shoot the lights out. The swingmen leap for block shots while maintaining control of their bodies. A back-and-forth affair throughout, Angola somehow, someway came back from a late five-point deficit to force overtime and eek out an 84-83 victory. It was the most fun I've had watching a basketball game live in some time.
"We have good basketball players here," Amadou proudly boasted after the Angolan contingency erupted with joy after their team's hard-fought victory.
Indeed they do.
Except that none of them are and likely never will be NBA players ... they simply started playing too late and most didn't have the coaching or the facilities needed to harness and maximize their talent.
The issue of early basketball development and others were addressed Friday morning at a joint FIBA/NBA press conference, hosted by Amadou and including NBA Europe's Jesus Bueno, Masai, Marc and yours truly (as a representative of the "media" ... ha!). We discussed the need for FIBA Africa to get their own players to play for their home countries (for example, Mbah a Moute passed on playing for Cameroon due to insurance reasons, Ibaka is playing for Spain and Deng is playing for England), for local federations to invest more in basketball facilities (the biggest obstacle for getting kids to play basketball early in Africa) and for FIBA Africa to raise its overall brand awareness globally.
FIBA Africa is like much else on this fascinating, frustrating and forever inspiring continent: the passion and vision is there, but the details, the dirty work and the structure is not. As Masai pointed out during the press conference, there's more to international basketball than just traveling to tournaments in far-off places. There is dirty work to be done year-round to prepare teams for international tournaments and develop talent within each country. And I jumped in by suggesting that FIBA Africa needs more executive leadership like Amadou and Masai; former players who understand the game itself as well as the business, structure and legalities of the international game.
The head coach of Madagascar's FIBA team -- a Spanish import -- brought up a great idea at the conference. He suggested that the NBA form "academies" in Africa that are affiliated with NBA teams, a la what Major League Baseball does throughout Latin America. Amadou took diligent notes when this was brought up, so who knows ... could we have the Abuja Nuggets some day? I certainly hope so.
After spending the morning dissecting the challenges facing FIBA Africa and basketball development throughout Africa, we celebrated FIBA Africa's 50th Anniversary with a cocktail-attire, nostalgia-filled gala on Friday night. Awards were handed out commemorating FIBA Africa's greatest contributors over the past five decades and whether or not is was the endless wine and beer being poured, optimism was in the air for the future of FIBA Africa.
At the gala, everyone wanted their photo taken with Amadou, who might as well be "the godfather" of African basketball. With grace and a genuine smile, Amadou shakes every hand and knows everyone's first name. It's clear that the delegations here appreciate everything Amadou is doing for basketball in Africa, as he tirelessly tries to develop more African players while bettering the relationship between the NBA and FIBA Africa.
Posted throughout the gala were photos of African teams from the previous 50 years, including Masai's Nigerian team from the late 1990s. Pointing himself out in the team photo, Masai beamed about his Nigerian team that marched through the 1997 FIBA Afrobasket tournament, losing in the finals. That may have been a long time ago, but as the only African-born general manager of an American professional sports team, I think it's fair to say that Masai Ujiri -- like Amadou Fall -- never veers far from his basketball roots.
And thanks to these two basketball-obsessed ambassadors, perhaps we'll start seeing more African-born players making their way to the NBA.
Check back next week for Andrew's report from Basketball Without Borders in Johannesburg, South Africa.