Andrew Feinstein of SB Nation's Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs traveled to Madagascar with Nuggets GM Masai Ujiri and NBA Africa VP Amadou Gallo Fall to take in the FIBA African Championship. In this report he shares the semifinal experience and a talk with the coach of Madagascar basketball on the logistic challenges of hoops in Africa. On Saturday, he wrote about how Africa's basketball outlook can improve.
ANTANANARIVO, MADAGASCAR -- As I'm arranging my post-FIBA Afrobasket forest tour here in Madagascar, I find myself laying out a stack of 10,000 ariary bills to my tour guide. Fresh out of the ATM machine, my 10,000 ariary bills are big, crisp and colorful ... about 25 percent bigger than a US dollar. Seeing the stack of bills piling up, my guide looks up at me and, in broken English, says, "Our money is like everything else in Madagascar. Big and colorful, but not much value."
Each 10,000 ariary bill is worth about $5 in the United States.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. It's no Somalia, but the nation -- which is also the fourth largest island in the world -- routinely ranks high in the world's poverty ranking. Madagascar is in the bottom 15 in GDP per capita. The average person makes less than $1 per day, and 20 percent of the children born here die before they reach five years old. Having traveled through comparably poor Rwanda last summer, I don't sense the same spirit here among the Malagasy people as I saw in Rwanda. Rwanda may be poor, but the children are getting educated (including learning English), the people are too proud to beg and their country is exceptionally clean ... thanks to a regime that mandates a national cleaning day once a month. Here in Madagascar, the streets are littered with trash and beggars abound everywhere. It's as if this country is in desperate need of a giant pick-me-up.
Perhaps basketball could be that pick-me-up, but it's a long shot at best. Madagascar landed the 2011 FIBA Afrobasket championship by allegedly paying a handsome sum to FIBA to be the host country and due to Cote d'Ivoire, the originally selected host for the 2011 championship, devolve into violent political chaos earlier this year. Madagascar has hardly been a world beater in any sport, but certainly not basketball. And it doesn't help when the Malagasy people are inherently short.
So it wasn't much of a surprise to me when Les Palais des Sports, the stadium where the Afrobasket championships took place here in Madagascar's capital city, was three-quarters empty for the quarterfinals last Thursday. For the semifinals on Saturday, however, it was a much different story.
The semis featured two compelling matchups and the stands were packed all night.
The early game pitted two countries against each other that have had more than their fair share of violent political turmoil this year when Tunisia went head-to-head with Cote d'Ivoire for a spot in Sunday's championship game. Led by 7'1 center Salah Mejri, Tunisia's exceptional last-minute defense sealed their victory, with Mejri blocking a three-pointer that would have tied the game. Mejri has a great "motor" as Jay Bilas would say and was impactful on both ends of the floor and on virtually every possession. But like most foreign-born players, Mejri needs to add weight -- at least 15 if not 20 pounds -- if he's to have a shot at an NBA roster spot some day.
The second game showcased would-be African powerhouse Nigeria versus longtime African powerhouse Angola. The New York Yankees of FIBA Afrobasket, Angola has won every Afrobasket championship since 1989, except one. I say "would be powerhouse" in regards to Nigeria because it was absent most of its NBA players: there was no Ike Diogu (Clippers), no Al-Farouq Aminu (Clippers), no Ekpe Udoh (Warriors), no Solomon Alabi (Raptors), no Ben Uzoh (Nets). Only Ime Udoku (Spurs) was here in Antananarivo to represent his home country, as the aging Udoku apparently wants one more shot at Olympic glory while his younger countrymen justifiably fret over insurance issues should they get injured.
Putting up a good fight through three-and-a-half quarters, Nigeria's lack of overall talent and bench depth eventually gave way to Angola's experience and toughness, and Angola walked away with a 76-68 victory and a boisterous Angolan contingency erupting with joy inside the stadium.
I watched both games with my co-host for this incredible trip, Nuggets vice president and son of Nigeria Masai Ujiri. But while watching his countrymen go toe-to-toe with Angola, Masai wasn't the big league executive who coolly handled the Carmelo Anthony situation last February. On this night, he was just a fan. And a passionate one at that. Normally calm and understated in his demeanor, Masai was up and out of his seat for most the game, berating the referees for their lack of three-second calls and screaming at the Nigerian players to get back on defense. When Nigeria finally went down in defeat, Masai was visibly crushed and felt obligated to apologize for his sour mood the rest of the night. Trying to comfort him, I explained that I've been a lifelong Nuggets, Broncos and Rockies fan: in other words, I certainly know what it's like to have your team get within earshot of a championship only to miss the opportunity. But at least Masai can reverse the Nuggets fortunes ... I certainly can't do so for Nigeria.
As was discussed in Friday's NBA/FIBA joint press conference, FIBA Africa must find a way -- through better planning and structure -- to get their NBA players into these tournaments and get them insured. Most NBA players of European or South American descent play for their respective countries in their respective delegations, but not so with Africa. At dinner following the games, both Masai and our other co-host, NBA Africa vice president Amadou Gall Fall, vowed to get more NBA players appearing in the 2013 Afrobasket championship. Not only would having African-born NBA players raise the level of FIBA Afrobasket play, but it could inspire kids throughout Africa to play more basketball ... which eventually raises the level of play of basketball throughout the world.
Joining us at dinner were Raptors assistant general manager Marc Eversley, Knicks head of West Coast scouting Mark Hughes and Madagascar's national team coach Angel Manzano, a Spanish import who finds himself with one of the toughest basketball-related jobs in the world. Angel led much of the conversation as he regaled us with story after story of what it's like to try revamping one of the world's weakest national basketball programs. When Angel arrived to coach the men's senior team two years ago, he had no facilities, no shoes, no uniforms. In fact, he didn't even have uniforms for the 2011 Afrobasket championship taking place in his adopted home country until he pulled some strings with a U.S.-based uniform maker to send him 25 reversible jerseys on the house. And per diem for his players? Angel managed to get them a whopping $1.50 US per day ... during tournament play only.
So lacking is Madagascar with their facilities, that when Angel's team scheduled an exhibition game to prepare for the 2011 Afrobasket tournament but ran into a scheduling conflict with the national kickboxing team, Angel's basketball players had to play outdoors on a makeshift court.
As is the case throughout much of Africa, Angel said that Madagascar's problem is a lack of facilities and proper equipment needed to make basketball accessible to young, aspiring players. But passion for the game isn't an issue. Claiming that the children of Madagascar are hungry for basketball, Angel said that in his travels throughout this island nation he commonly sees kids create baskets from wood scraps and balls from bundles of trash, just to be able to play. "These people have nothing," Angel says. "Basketball gives them something. Something to latch on to. Something to be a part of. Something that gives them hope. Only basketball can do that here."
Angel also said he's working with the Madagascar government to build 150 asphalt courts throughout the country at a cost of just $400 U.S. apiece. But not surprisingly, the military-controlled government hasn't dispersed the funds yet and the project hasn't begun. (While hearing this, I'm thinking that the average NBA players sneezes $60,000, lockout or not.) Regardless of the challenges, Angel's heartfelt passion for his adopted country's basketball program was clear to all of us. He made five new fans of Madagascar basketball that night.
Listening to all this, I could tell just looking at Amadou and Masai that they hear these types of stories weekly, if not daily, about the state of facilities and equipment for Africa's emerging basketball players.
"I want to help them all," Amadou told me afterward. "I do this job because I want to bring basketball to everyone in Africa. Not only will basketball better the lives of people throughout Africa, but it will better the game globally which is good for everyone in the sport. That is what this is all about. The problem is that I have to prioritize and make difficult decisions with who the NBA can help."
Before saying our goodbyes, Amadou and Masai invited Angel to attend this week's Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg and the coach took them up on the offer. Now Angel will have something special to bring back to his players in Madagascar.
This is what Amadou and Masai do: they connect the NBA with the boots-on-the-ground soldiers making basketball better in Africa, be it FIBA officials, national coaches, star African players or children who are just learning the game.
"It can be frustrating because there are so many challenges in Africa," says Masai. "But we have to just keep working at it. It can only get better."