JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Jaylen Brown, the least experienced of all NBA players in this game, was handed the task of turning out the lights and sending everyone home. Yet, he hesitated. He had the ball, and a clear path, and just a few seconds remained with his team about to win.
In a normal NBA game, the unwritten rule is you simply dribble out the clock instead of committing the unforgivable act of tacking on a basket. But his teammate Andre Drummond nodded and pointed toward the direction of the hoop.
Yes, in this instance, it was OK and even understandable to score one more. It's for the fans. It’s for Africa. And so, Brown dribbled and soared and threw down a windmill that might get him an invite at next year’s dunk contest, attaching an exclamation point on an exclamation week.
A group of players got together for an exhibition game Saturday on African soil for only the second time in history, bringing the beautiful sport to a place that doesn’t see players like them. They were split in two squads, Team World for those born in other countries, Team Africa for those with the continent’s blood rushing through their veins. The NBA Africa Game 2017 took place inside the TicketPro Dome, which normally gets concerts and car shows, and the reception from the announced sellout of 7,348 was festive. At one point, they chanted: “Afri-ca” because the fans’ rooting interest was unapologetically biased.
Well: The undermanned Africans lost 108-97 and yet nobody seemed to mind or care much, actually. That’s mainly because the players put in work during the game and more importantly, all week long.
The purpose for players and coaches on this trip was to travel Transatlantic to conduct basketball camps for carefully selected teenagers flown in from across the continent, something done annually through the Basketball Without Borders program. As for the game, this was a bonus, a chance for them to demonstrate on a high level what was being taught.
Simply, the NBA’s goal to grow the game in Africa was all-encompassing and designed to inflate the sport’s awareness and give kids an athletic option besides soccer and cricket. It’s also good for business; the more players that can be discovered and groomed, the better the chance for importing fresh talent to the league (hello, Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ emerging star and former BWB camper).
Embiid didn’t play because he’s wisely being careful about a body that hasn’t yet held up an entire season. And his absence cost Team Africa a much-needed offensive resource. Still, the game proved close anyway and had moments.
Kyle Lowry broke open a tight game down the stretch and Victor Oladipo took home the Manute Bol MVP trophy after scoring 28 points and keeping hope alive for Team Africa.
There were three pre-game anthems, the first for the US, then one for Unified Africa, and yet another for South Africa. That might be a first.
New Orleans Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who led Team Africa, had his players intentionally foul Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins three seconds into the game. That got a rise out of Cousins and a laugh on the Africa bench.
There was a brief scare when Kristaps Porzingis fell hard after fouling Bismack Biyombo and had to be helped to his feet. He stayed in the game. He’s OK. The Knicks’ season did not come to an end before it started.
One of the celebrities on hand was hip-hop star and African native Akon, but the biggest applause was for retired soccer great Thierry Henry, because hey, soccer runs deep here. He kicked a basketball through the hoop from midcourt on Friday while attending practice.
There was a warm ovation for Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, whose jersey hung from the ceiling along with Manute Bol’s and Hakeem Olajuwon’s, and then Deke was mobbed by finger-wagging players from both teams.
Thabo Sefolosha was the biggest deal among players. His father is a black South African who was forced to move to his future wife’s homeland of Switzerland because of Apartheid.
The Africans are now 0-2 on their home soil, having lost the inaugural 2015 contest, too.
After the game, Gentry gathered his team.
“I told the guys in the locker room that I loved their dedication not only to the game but to the continent of Africa. You can go man to man on both teams and they’ll tell you how fantastic the whole experience was to them. The help they did in the communities superseded everything. They made an impact and a contribution and not only in the basketball part.”
The goodwill mission certainly involved basketball; players and coaches ran kids through drills and dropped wisdom. More players from these camps are getting college scholarships and the hope is more will trickle into the NBA.
But: The social work impactful, starting with joining a construction crew with Habitat For Humanity in a humble village in need for homes, most of which had no indoor plumbing. It was the first time that being a bricklayer was an endearing term for a basketball player.
“After we were done and we got on the bus, the players came in barefoot and shirtless,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “They had given everything they had on the job. That was good to see.”
Next was a trip to another village, this one for kids who were abandoned or fled troubled homes, an orphanage blessed with an NBA-built outdoor court. Oladipo said it was a bigger highlight than winning the MVP.
“I always have a big place in my heart for kids and to go there and see them and have fun with them is something I’ll never forget,” he said. “It was great to come here and do something memorable on my first time on African soil, especially with both of my parents being from Nigeria.”
This event was many months in the making but the chore of getting players to cooperate for Kim Bohuny, the NBA executive who has long organized international projects for the NBA, is getting easier.
“The word has started to spread and I’m happy to say we have a wait list of players and coaches,” she said. “It’s a great experience for their families and a wonderful way to see the world, give back to the game and their communities. Our players and coaches really understand how global the NBA is and how they’re known in the furthest corners of this world. They see it, they want to experience it. It’s been wonderful.”
It has become an educational and awareness journey for players, especially for first-timers. Count one such player, Hornets guard Kemba Walker, as being hooked.
“It’s been life changing and making me want to expand on my traveling, my community service work,” he said. “Building the houses put things in perspective and a super humbling experience. I texted all my friends and said that we can never complain. We live so good, we’re so fortunate. We complain about the smallest things. The people here don’t complain. They just live. I was never a big traveler. This trip brought me out of my comfort zone with that long flight. I’m not a big fan of those flights but glad I did it.”
Watching players being engaged was no surprise to Michele Roberts, the executive director of the player’s association; it was more of the same.
“They will tell you that the most memorable part of this experience is not the game, it’s the week leading up to the game,” she said. “I’m used to seeing this from them, but like most who don’t have the pleasure of interacting with the players, you don’t know this side of them. You didn’t have a chance to see it.”
The game was surprising entertaining and competitive despite the obvious rust from players who haven’t suited up in three or four months, and despite the stacked World team with Lowry, Porzingis, Walker and Dirk Nowitzki among others. Luol Deng, the Team Africa co-captain who sat out with a slight injury, tried to rationalize it afterward.
“I mean, we played hard and tried to push through,” he said.
Dirk then walked by and cracked: “But you took the `L’ instead.”
That made Deng laugh and then the Lakers forward by way of South Sudan gave some perspective.
“This is a very talented continent and that’s something the NBA has recognized,” he said. “What we’re doing here is more than playing a game and it’s time the people around the world to know that.”
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