Basketball Without Borders Africa celebrates 10 years
Nuggets executive Masai Ujiri sees more progress ahead for native continent
Envelopes both big and small are stacked precipitously on a filing cabinet in Masai Ujiri’s office at Pepsi Center.
His virtual inbox is equally stuffed with follow-up correspondence from people he met during the latest Basketball Without Borders Africa camp in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“I’ve got piles and piles of mail and e-mails I have to return,” Ujiri says. “But I love it. It shows that there is an impact we’re having over there.”
With an assist from the NBA, Ujiri recently concluded his 10th elite camp since Basketball Without Borders first went to Africa in 2003.
Among the NBA contingent were former Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo (Congo), Chicago Bulls forward Luol Deng (South Sudan), Oklahoma City Thunder center Serge Ibaka (Congo) and Milwaukee Bucks forward Luc Mbah A Moute (Cameroon).
“One of the things the NBA stressed was trying to bring the NBA players from Africa this year,” Ujiri said. “Having those African players who have become prominent in the NBA, it was pretty significant for us. These are guys you watch on TV and now you’re seeing them in person. The impression they made was huge.”
The 60 young campers weren’t the only ones impressed by the experience.
Nuggets player development coordinator Patrick Mutombo was familiar with Basketball Without Borders but never had the opportunity to experience it in person.
Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mutombo moved to Belgium when he was 13. He played college basketball at Metro State University in Denver and professionally in Italy, Greece and the United States. His role with Basketball Without Borders marked the first time in nearly 20 years that he returned to Africa.
“When I left, (Nuggets) coach (George) Karl said, ‘Go and touch base with your roots.’ I kind of just laughed,” Mutombo said. “When I got there, I was like, ‘Yes, this is where I’m from. I can’t forget this continent.’ ”
Mutombo is part of an extensive list of players and coaches who have taken part in Basketball Without Borders Africa since its inaugural elite camp in 2003.
Ujiri – executive director of basketball operations for the Nuggets – recalls the star-studded lineup of Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard in 2009. In 2011, the camp was headlined by legends Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo.
“There are a lot of players who want to go,” Ujiri said. “It’s amazing how much it touches you, not only because of the basketball but the stuff the NBA does in the community to give back and reach out.”
Long before Ujiri became the first African-born general manger in American professional sports, he made a priority of educating young people about life and basketball on his native continent. Basketball had given him so much that he wanted to provide the same opportunities for others.
“Everyone mentions the fact that I am the first African GM,” Ujiri said. “I think it means nothing unless you impact people in Africa. That’s what we’re trying to try to continue to do – impact the game and make an impact on people over there.”
Though he is listed as a camp director, Ujiri is a full-fledged teacher and coach when the players hit the court.
“He was in the trenches working” Patrick Mutombo said. “He was in there sweating with the guys, interacting with them, correcting them. I saw the intensity in his eyes as he was talking to the kids. That showed me that it’s personal for him. When you come as a first-timer like me, you can’t help but bring the same passion.”
Amadou Gallo Fall, a native of Senegal who is now vice president of development for NBA Africa, also shares that passion. Fall and Ujiri have worked side by side with Basketball Without Borders for more than a decade, and their dedication is paying dividends.
Ujiri estimates that 70-90 former camp participants have gone on to play for college teams in the United States. Two years after attending the first BWB Africa camp in 2003, Cameroon native Mbah a Moute went on to play at UCLA; he is currently preparing for his fifth NBA season with the Milwaukee Bucks.
“The closest I got to the NBA was getting up at 3 a.m. to watch games on TV,” Mbah a Moute said in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "When I came to this camp and met Dikembe Mutombo, it was a dream come true. Not only could you see (the NBA), but feel it and live it."
Mbah a Moute is one of several African-born players in the NBA. After watching 60 of Africa’s elite high school players, Patrick Mutombo believes the best is yet to come.
“You don’t have to tell them to go hard. They go hard,” Mutombo said. “The athleticism is unbelievable. Probably 85 to 90 percent of the kids that were there had something freakish about them, whether it was size, athleticism or speed.
“What a lot of them lacked was the technical aspect of the game. You can teach that. What they have, you cannot teach. Once those guys catch up with skill development, it’s a wrap. You’ll see a lot more players coming out of Africa. It’s a dormant giant waiting to be awakened.”
Africa’s progress was evident this summer as Nigeria and Tunisia represented the continent at the 2012 Olympics in London. It was the first time two African teams qualified for the Olympics in basketball since the professional era began in 1992.
Though neither team advanced to the medal round, Ujiri sensed a new level of excitement when he held camps and clinics in his native Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania.
“Having two African teams in the Olympics, it’s huge,” he said. “It gives us a good buzz for the African championships next year because players will want to play and everybody wants to do well. It’s exciting.”
Prior to the BWB camp, Ujiri also traveled to Rwanda. He believes it is important to visit as many African nations as possible to gain a perspective on the unique challenges facing each country.
“I’ve always read about the genocide in Rwanda and I went to the genocide museum,” Ujiri said. “I saw how well the country’s coming together and growing. I’ve studied the politics of Africa, but going to those places educates you even more. I have to stay in touch with my continent and what’s going on over there.”
Firmly established in the NBA and overseas, Ujiri is looking forward to the next 10 years of Basketball Without Borders Africa. He and Fall are working toward cultivating more relationships with businesses and sponsors who can help build facilities for players to develop their skills.
Recognizing the importance of Africa as an international market, the NBA opened its first office in South Africa in 2010, and appointed Fall as the director.
“The office in Johannesburg has been extremely valuable,” Ujiri said. “Having a base on the ground in Africa allows us to work closely with local businesses and interact with future partners. It’s been a great help growing the game in Africa the past few years.”
Momentum certainly is building.
In addition to the dozens of former BWB Africa participants who have gone on to play college basketball, countless others have benefited from the life skills sessions that are an integral part of each camp. Prevention of AIDS/HIV is one of the focal points.
“In an environment like that, you determine the success of it by the kids participating,” Patrick Mutombo said. "They were giving and sharing ideas. I saw different counties coming together and speaking frankly. It’s powerful, man. It’s beyond basketball. Basketball was the platform that provided all this through the NBA.”
Ujiri also is quick to credit the NBA for its continued support and commitment to Africa.
“The NBA has done great sustaining the camp for 10 years,” Ujiri said. “Sometimes it’s not known right away what the result will be, but I guarantee you it’s a payoff down the road. It’s a great thing that the NBA has done in Africa to develop the game.”
Patrick Mutombo could not agree more. He only has one request: “I hope I get invited back next year.”
The opportunity will be there. As it has proven over the past decade, Basketball Without Borders Africa is here to stay.