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Camaraderie Is Essence Of NBA's Basketball Without Borders In South Africa

Denver Stiffs' Andrew Feinstein continues his reporting from Africa for, this time from the conclusion of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders camp taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Alonzo Mourning coaches the camps big men on how to handle the low post.
Alonzo Mourning coaches the camps big men on how to handle the low post.

Andrew Feinstein of SB Nation's Nuggets blog Denver Stiffs traveled to FIBA Afrobasket 2011 and the NBA's Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Andrew's report from the final day of BWB. See his previous dispatches on the future of African basketball, the specific challenges the continent faces and the first day of Basketball Without Borders

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The final day of the NBA's four-day Basketball Without Borders Africa camp culminates with an All-Star Game featuring top campers from countries as disparate as Cameroon, Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa, Tunisia, Angola, Egypt, Congo and others. These budding African basketball stars are killing each other on the court at the behest of their NBA-affiliated coaches, the GrizzliesLionel Hollins, the HornetsMonty Williams, and a collection of scouts and former players serving as assistant coaches, such as Dikembe Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo MourningDee Brown, Jeff Hornacek, Bo Outlaw, Milt Newton (Wizards), B.J. Johnson (Rockets), Mark Hughes (Knicks), Marc Eversley (Raptors), Noel Gillespie (Suns) and Harold Ellis (Pistons).

And while the quality of play is hardly on par with even an NCAA showcase, the intensity resembles a close-out NBA playoff game. In the past four days I've seen no shortage of thunderous in-your-face dunks, skinned knees and elbows, hard fouls, sprained ankles and pushing and shoving underneath the basket. The only break these campers get is when camp co-director Masai Ujiri blares his (painfully) loud horn, signaling their need to take a break.

Meanwhile, the hyper-competitive coaches here are working over the inexperienced refs (Ellis is the worst offender and has to be calmed down by camp co-director Lance Blanks) while simultaneously barking at their players to get back on defense and rebound, two things anyone who has ever been coached at basketball has been hearing for a lifetime. The only difference here is that each team has additional assistant coaches to translate the head coaches’ instructions into French or various other native tongues for this diverse collection of aspiring ballers from every corner of Africa.

Hornets head coach Monty Williams prepares his team.

Now on Day 4 of the camp, the campers are more comfortable in their settings here (remember, most had never been on an airplane prior to Wednesday) and are playing much better. And having been drafted onto their own teams by the NBA coaches prior to Sunday's All-Star Game, the campers have built up a visible camaraderie with their teammates, regardless of country of origin, religion, tribe or language spoken. If a young player from Zambia takes a tumble, his Egyptian teammate immediately picks him up. If a South Sudanese player misses two shots in a row, his South African teammate pats him on the back in the huddle to cheer up.

Basketball is still basketball, regardless of the language barriers present here in Johannesburg.

There is a spirit of competitiveness and sportsmanship at BWB Africa that is remarkably inspiring, and maybe it has something to do with the NBA family guiding the event, whose own camaraderie is unparalleled.

Along with the great former players attending the camp is a broader NBA family including assistant coaches, general managers, scouts, executives, New York and Johannesburg-based league workers and WNBA legends Tamika Reynolds and Edna Campbell, who have been guiding the girls camp all week (and doing some great dancing in-between practices with their girls). And beyond that group is a collection of guests from around the world, including some FIBA and Nike officials, federation representatives from various African countries and volunteers from other basketball-oriented global non-profits.

So while the campers make new friends, so do the rest of those participating in and supervising the camp. 

This was evident on Day 2 of the camp when the former players and league guests partook in a Habitat for Humanity build at the Orange Farm Township, located 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg. With our shoes and shirts getting muddy and dusty, we worked with volunteers from the township itself to build two homes for two lucky families. This will make 14 homes built by the NBA at Orange Farm. And instead of separating the players for a few convenient photo ops, the players, guests and volunteers all worked together for several hours (my award for "Best Bricklayer" goes to Dee Brown and, no, that's not a commentary on his jump shot).

You know those "NBA Cares" snippets that we always see during NBA broadcasts? I saw it first hand here.

"We can't just bring the NBA into a new country without having a community outreach aspect to it. We believe in doing more for these communities than just creating more basketball fans," said the league's vice president of community relations Todd Jacobson. And Todd would know. He travels around the globe setting up community outreach projects for the NBA. Name a country or a region and Todd and his staff have been there.

"Amazing," said a covered-in-dirt Alonzo Mourning after our construction work was completed. "That might be the best thing I've ever done."

The NBA family at the Habitat for Humanity build (that's me in the back in the sunglasses!).

Following our Habitat for Humanity build, everyone got cleaned up for a cocktail reception with the league's African sponsors on Friday night. Addressing the reception was Amadou Gallo Fall, the league's top man in Africa and our unofficial host for all-things-Africa this week. I've previously referred to Amadou as "The Godfather" here, and it was never more evident than on Friday night as the US Ambassador to South Africa, Donald H. Gips, praised Amadou's efforts in South Africa and beyond. (Incidentally, Gips is a former Colorado resident and a huge Nuggets fan ... so needless to say he'll be a Denver Stiffs fan soon, too!) 

There was no better treat (for me) than getting to join Ewing, Mourning, Hollins and Williams for lunch one day and listen to them swapping stories about their playing days, how the game has evolved, how it's different today, et cetera. Their collective passion for the game has never dissipated, and it's obvious now as Hollins and Williams are head coaches, Ewing is an assistant coach and Zo works in the Miami Heat front office as vice president of player development. They are giving back to the game that gave them everything, just as Mutombo preached to the campers on Day 1 of this week's BWB Africa camp.

Every sideline, lunch table, bus ride, dinner table and break in the action here comes with great stories. You only have to stand nearby to hear them. Whether its a former All-Star or a league worker, everyone in this group has been around each other long enough to build lifelong relationships and reminisce about great experiences from their playing days, previous BWB camps or other NBA-related events they've been a part of together. But BWB has a particularly special feel to it as its one of the NBA's few programs that unites so many people from so many different countries, thanks to the invited guests that the league brings along.

On this trip, I've made new connections with people from Serbia, South Africa, Nigeria, France, Canada, Spain, Australia, Senegal and more. Basketball has brought us together, but I find myself constantly talking about much more than basketball to this diverse group gathered here for BWB. I hope to see them all again, but understand the reality of the world in that unless you travel globally for business (something I do not), you can only take so many breaks and globe trot. That's why you have to make the most out of it when you do.

Unparalleled camaraderie from "The Georgetown Mafia."

On the evening of Day 3 of this incredible camp, the NBA family was hosted by Ambassador Gips at his beautiful home in Pretoria which, as the Ambassador himself jokes when we walk in: "You all paid for this so make yourself at home!"

Built over 100 years ago as the house for the postmaster general of South Africa's, the ambassador's large and beautiful house (acquired by the United States in the early 1940s) sits high up on a cliff and overlooks all of Pretoria. 

Surrounded by the NBA contingency in his hosting room, the ambassador talks to us about the challenges and opportunities here in Africa. "You can look at Africa through a very negative or a very positive lens," he says to us. "But with so many young people on this continent, I think you're looking at the next China or India here. It's just going to be more difficult because there are so many different countries, different languages and different tribal factions. But this is the place to be."

Hearing this, I'm thinking back to those 60 campers who are probably hanging out in the break room of their dormitory at the St. John's Academy, forging a cross-country and cross-tribe bond that one hopes never goes away. Perhaps the NBA, in an admittedly very small and yet very important way, is helping to bring about a bright future for Africa.

The NBA invades the home of the US Ambassador to South Africa.

After a 45-minute bus ride back to our hotel in Johannesburg, a few of us gather at the hotel bar for one more round of drinks knowing that after Sunday's All-Star Game and barbecue, we have to go back to our respective corners of the globe. Just as those kids staying at St. John's do. But instead of talking about basketball, we find ourselves talking about politics, history and life ... led by an animated "Professor Mutombo" who wants to talk about everything from American politics to the never-ending struggles of his home country in Congo. And I mean everything. It's a lengthy conversation as there are no shortage of challenges globally and in our own United States, but Africa seems to have more upside right now as America and its politicians squabble its way through this current economic morass.

Failing to solve the world's problems over one round of drinks, we all shake hands, give hugs and say our good nights. I get into the elevator to go back to my room, and am alone with Dikembe. "Most people don't want to talk about what's really going on in the world," says Dikembe to me. "But we are educated men and we must talk. We must talk to our own communities or nothing changes." When the elevator stops on my floor, Dikembe gives me a huge bear hug and wishes me good night. "My brother!" he says before I depart, with the widest of wide smiles.

Back to Sunday, before joining the All-Star festivities at King Edwards School, the NBA arranged a tour of the Apartheid Museum for all of us and filmed the three Georgetown legends as they experienced the museum alongside the rest of the NBA contingency. We walked through this magnificent (and beyond depressing) exhibition as a group and together learned about South Africa's great struggle over race and equality ... a struggle that continues today with so many young black South Africans unemployed and rightly questioning their own futures. The museum currently has a Nelson Mandela exhibit and includes a full historical perspective on that great leader's life. A life that, tragically, will be coming to an end soon as Mandela is in his early 90s and by all accounts isn't well health-wise. 

Ewing at the Apartheid Museum.

Running long at the museum, we rushed back to the courts to catch the All-Star events which included a girls game (coached by Raymond and Campbell) followed by the boys game. After the two boys' teams are announced, Ujiri takes the non-All-Stars aside and points out to them that this camp has produced two NBA players who didn't make their camp's All-Star Games. 

At the conclusion of the game, an MVP is named. He's a tall teenager from Tunisia (the country that just won FIBA's 2011 Afrobasket champion and will be representing Africa in the 2012 London Olympics) and he's embraced by his teammates as he proudly holds up his MVP trophy. Following the award ceremony, the camp is officially concluded with remarks from Fall and representatives from Nike and FIBA, both of whom proclaim that this is the best BWB Africa camp to date in terms of the quality of play and preparedness of the young athletes. And finally, an exhausted group of campers hear from Ujiri one more time before departing for their buses for our group barbecue. He leads them in a quick musical chant, boasts about what a great job they did throughout the week and reminds them to take what they've learned here back to their home countries. After hearing this, the campers run to the bus with their heads held up high and despite the fatigue, look like they could actually sneak in another game or two.

The camp wraps up with a full barbecue hosted by St. John's Academy, and the NBA family dines alongside the campers, both boys and girls. The NBA players actively seek out their favorite campers to say goodbye one more time, and the young players use this opportunity to get a few more words of wisdom from their NBA counterparts. Among those in the NBA group, we say our good byes as well, since many of us are leaving tonight and Monday on different flights and won't see each other for some time. But we experienced something indescribably powerful together here in Johannesburg that will make the next time we see each other even more special.

Observing the camp's final events and all that the NBA does for its family and friends during four days of Basketball Without Borders Africa, I'm realizing that maybe those 60 boys and 25 girls from all over Africa weren't the only campers here in the first place.