Suns News

Mark West’s South African Journal

Suns assistant GM Mark West coached a team of South African players as part of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders outreach program in South Africa.
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE Photos)
Suns assistant general manager Mark West was among the NBA contingent in South Africa as part of the league’s continuing Basketball Without Borders outreach program. One of the most intelligent and respected players in Suns history, “Big Daddy” shared his experiences throughout the week in an ongoing journal.

Basketball Without Borders Africa brought together 100 players from more than 20 countries across the continent for basketball instruction and competition in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 7-12.

Monday, Sept. 12, 2005

I wanted to kiss the ground when we landed in Atlanta. I am so happy to be home, but I would love to go back again and again to Africa. Being an African-American, I think that everyone needs to go back and be there to see for themselves. They need to talk with Africans about Africa on the continent and make their own impressions. I didn’t have any real connection to Africa until I got there. I went to help the children and the players involved in the charitable programs, then when I got there I most certainly felt a connection. I will always go back and recommend to people who have never been there to go and see for themselves.

I will always remember the heroes of South Africa, like Mama Jackey, who give of themselves against all odds and are successful in spite of the circumstances. It’s an amazing sight to see. To have met Nelson Mandela and be in his presence, knowing what he has done for his people, is almost surreal to recall. Listening to Sam Ramsammy’s stories of how he helped the de-racializing, as he called it, of sports in South Africa so that blacks could participate in the Olympic Games as a country. I’ll never forget any of that.

As an American, I’m happy to be here in the United States and I appreciate this country even more now. There might come a time when I could see going back and spending several weeks there, but could not see turning in my passport and living over there. I can’t see that now, anyway. Being there, I do think there is hope for that country and that it’s going be spectacular some day. It will be amazing to see in 20 years, as long as things continue to go in the right direction as they are today.

Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005

I had the pleasure today of touring the compound where Nelson Mandela lives. He visited with us as a group for about 15 minutes, and I got to meet him and shake his hand. It was pretty incredible just to be in the presence of a man who has done so much for a nation. I was honored to meet him. The irony to me was that here is a man who spent 22 years in prison before being released and now, as president of the country, he is forced to stay in a compound which is, in a sense, almost like a prison.

It looks like you’re in Los Angeles, or any other big American city, on the large scale, but when you get closer you notice that all the buildings are surrounded by tall fences with barbed wire, security cameras and you can tell they were built with the notion of keeping somebody out.

I was talking to the former sports minister for South Africa, Sam Ramsammy, who worked to get the country back on the international competition map after the fall of apartheid. Progress is being made. As of now, 15 million people have electricity for the first time in their lives. Ten to 15 million people have plumbing and running water for the first time ever. They don’t have to travel around with IDs in certain sections of the town and be monitored by police. So there have been drastic changes that someone like Ramsammy would notice because he’s from there. But, there is still a long way to go.

There is an extreme sense of pride to have been representing the NBA Players Association and America in general. What we’re doing here has a tangible impact on people, communities and nations.

I would love to come back. It’s been a long trip and it’s been draining, both physically and mentally. I appreciate what I have and I enjoyed sharing those things, and doing what I can to help them turn things around.

Saturday, Sept. 10, 2005

West's Suns team made it to the finals and finished with a 2-1 record.
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE Photos)
Today we finished the basketball tournament. My team did make it to the final game, but we lost to the Spurs, a team coached by former NBA player Harold Ellis. I also coached one of the All-Star teams and didn’t fare very well in that one, either, so it was not a very good day from that standpoint.

Coaching was exciting for me. I ran pretty much the Suns' style of basketball – up and down, getting the ball under the rim and running. It worked for us in the first two games and we entered the final game 2-0.

The Final was a close game. My kids played hard. We were down by 20 points at halftime, but the thing was – and maybe it was because I was coaching the team – my team had 26 first-half fouls called on them and that is no exaggeration. The other team had two and we fell behind at the half by 24 points.

There was more equality in the calls the second half. My guys played hard and caught up. With 10 seconds left in the game we were down two and our best player got an offensive rebound but missed the lay up. It hit the rim and rimmed out! So we ended up fouling and sending them to the line. They hit their free throws and won by four. It was a heartbreaker.

My team had only one player who spoke English. My assistant coaches were the translators. I would give them instructions to the players, but I never knew if it was getting translated verbatim. They were doing the best they could and I’m guessing it was pretty close, but I just don’t know. At least it got to the point where I could communicate with these guys through visuals after being with them three or four days.

Individually, they worked so hard and wanted to become better basketball players. I don’t know how big basketball is in their own countries, but they’re the best players from their home country for their age. They are all aware of American basketball, there’s not doubt about that.

Part of my strategy in drafting the players was to try to at least get a few of them from the same country. I got two guards from Angola and a couple of my forwards were from Cameroon. In addition to speaking the same language, they probably had played together or at least had seen each other play. It worked pretty well because I ended up in the finals.

As time went on, I could see them progressing as a team. I was trying to get them to understand that if they shared the ball they would be a lot more successful. I didn’t have a Steve Nash on my team, so I had to get them to understand that as best I could. I could see near the end, as we got closer to winning it all, that they started to play together. They understood that if they played separately the chances of winning were greatly reduced. Basketball is a team sport. Even if you have the best player, if he doesn’t share the ball with his teammates, there’s going to be a problem and I think they grasped that concept very well by the end of the weekend.

They were beginning to learn the subtleties of the game, too. Instead of trying to go for the spectacular dunk, they would lay it up and make sure they got the basket. What I tried to instill in them was to play smart. How hard they played was never in question. They all played hard. I could see them playing smarter near the end and that was gratifying.

Basketball is a game that brings people together all over the world. I had just as much fun around the game with those kids in Africa as if I was right back here in Phoenix or in Virginia

The experience did confirm that coaching is not for me. I just get too crazy. I’m so excited and into it. To be as competitive as I am and not be able to get on the court, I just don’t see it. I do enjoy working with kids, though. If I had to coach, it would be kids.

The All-Star game was a whole different ball game. I had guys from all over the continent and I hadn’t been with them at all before. It was kind of hard to explain anything, particularly defensively. A lot of them were massive ball hogs. One guy would start complaining, but it was just one ball hog recognizing the other ball hogs. That was the biggest problem with the All-Star game, but that was still no excuse. The other coach had the same problems.

Later on, we heard a distressing story about one of the students from Ithuteng Trust. Mama Jackey houses about 400 of the thousand students in her care. The other kids live with their relatives or friends and come to the school to participate in the different programs. After yesterday’s performances, one of the girls who did not have a place to stay in the complex was supposed to be picked up by her aunt, who for whatever reason never showed. The girl wound up getting a ride, but wanted to get let off about a half-mile from her house and was going to walk the rest of the way. We found out tonight that after being dropped off, that 11-year-old girl was gang raped for the third time in two years. We were told that in the township of Soweto a rape occurs every 23 seconds.

After feeling bad about losing the games that day, that put it all in perspective. It drains you mentally to see the conditions to begin with and then when something like that happens during the time frame that you’re there, it’s just heart-wrenching.

Friday, Sept. 9, 2005

Bob Lanier had asked me to participate in a panel discussion regarding leadership as part of the Life Skills segment of speakers’ series. Lanier was the main speaker, but both Pistons guard Darvin Ham and I gave our interpretation of what we thought leadership was and what qualities made leaders.

I tried to impress upon them that a leader is not based on the circumstances of where you come from, whether you had wealth or not. Leadership is about having influence – having people look at you and see in you the desire to follow. There’s no such thing as being a leader without having someone follow. A leader is someone who focuses on the goal instead of the obstacles. If there are obstacles, leaders are adept at removing them, not only for themselves, but also for the people behind them. If they trip, they get up and remove the obstacle for the people behind them so they won’t have to trip over it. It’s not what they do for themselves, but for the people they serve.

I though my presentation was well received. I think those kids have a sense of leadership already because they are some of the top players from their respective teams or countries, so they’re kind of thrust into that role anyway. But, hopefully we gave them a kind of clarity on how execute it more effectively.

After the Like Skills presentations, we took an hour bus ride to Soweto, which is a township outside of Johannesburg, and spent the rest of the day there. Kliptown, the township we had visited earlier in the trip, was a township of 40,000, but there are four and a half to five million people in Soweto.

Jackey Maarohanye runs a complex called Ithuteng Trust in Soweto and has taken in more than a thousand abused or abandoned children.
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE Photos)
We went to a complex called Ithuteng Trust, run by an incredible woman named Jackey Maarohanye. “Mama Jackey,” as she is called, has taken in more than a thousands kids aged 8-22 who have been abused or abandoned. Some of them have contracted HIV after being raped or molested, and some of the kids have criminal backgrounds.

Knowing the backgrounds of the kids at the complex, I was expecting them to be as hard as any inner city kid, but they were well-mannered and grateful for us coming to visit them, helping out and listening to their stories. They are a reflection of the program and Mama Jackey herself.

When they first get there they must go through a sort of boot camp, a “scared straight” program where they are sent to the prisons, locked up with the inmates to try to get them back on the right track. It’s pretty effective. The kids I talked to were appreciative, thankful, kind and disciplined. What Mama Jackey says, goes. They don’t ask how, when or why, it just gets done. I wasn’t ready for all those kids in one place and all of them were so humble and kind.

Over 200 of the students put on a show for us displaying the traditional dances from the tribes indigenous to South Africa. At the end of the night they acted out a true story about one of the rape victims from the compound. In this particular story, the father, himself an AIDS victim, threw out of his house a daughter who also had HIV and eventually died of the disease. He then raped his other two daughters. The son, after finding out what had happened, murdered his father and the authorities took him away. This was a heart-wrenching reenactment of an actual event.

Because of Mama Jackey’s program, the kids can look forward to a bright future. If they were not involved in the program, they might not think it was as bright and it wouldn’t be as bright without people like Mama Jackey, as well as organizations and people from the outside, like the NBA and also stars like Chris Tucker, Oprah Winfrey and Brad Pitt, to name just a few. The students appreciate the help and they don’t take it lightly.

In my mind, Mama Jackey has grown to almost Mother Teresa proportions. She has to get her message across so quickly and in such desperate circumstances. She is caring, engaging and very persistent. She tells the story of how she met Chris Tucker at a financial summit in Norway. No other businesses would approach her because they correctly could see they were not going to make any money from her enterprise. So she approached Tucker and was persistent in telling him about the children. He agreed to visit, but she doubted he would follow through. She assumed he was just being nice so she would leave him alone. A week later Chris showed up to help and has been a regular contributor of his time and money ever since.

Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005

Now that I have been here in South Africa for a few days, the jet lag is getting a little bit better. But I am also 6,000 feet above sea level, so that makes the adjustment difficult, too. I think overall I am pretty well acclimated. Those first two days were rough, though.

Culturally, of course, it’s a lot different from the United States. The people are so new to the idea of not being in an oppressive system. Both the oppressed and the oppressors are adjusting to their new way of life. They’re trying to work it out, but there’s still a lot of tension. From the outside looking in, I just hope that they continue to move forward.

Everyone here is hoping things are going to get better, but they are not really sure at this point because their expectations were that the change was going to be more dramatic. They went from having the minority being the governing party, being the heads of states and holding the high political positions where they could affect change, to having the majority in power.

The change from my vantage point seems substantial, but in talking to the people who live here, there remains frustration that the changes have not been as dramatic as they should have been. They feel that the majority, being part of the previously oppressed group, should have a greater understanding of the needs and should have taken care of those needs in a more aggressive or progressive way. Maybe that’s asking too much all the way around in a relatively short period of time. The government was handed over to people who had never governed. Miracles were expected from people who did not know how to govern themselves yet. They have the title, but they do not necessarily have the know-how. That will come with time. They are hopeful, though, because they see that they are headed in the right direction.

Today we started the basketball clinics and games. There are 10 teams involved and the players rotated through the different skills stations. Marcus Camby and I were working with the kids on rebounding and blocking shots. Jimmy Jackson was at a shooting station.

Then the games themselves began. Believe it or not, my team actually won, 87-73, despite my coaching. The communication was tough because most of the kids on my team speak either Portuguese or French. One thing I did have going for me was that my two assistants spoke Portuguese and French, as well. It was really difficult because during the clinics you’ve got to give them a visual explanation, but in game situations I found myself just yelling instructions as they were running up and down the court. I’d scream it in English and the assistants would holler at them in Portuguese. I don’t know if they were telling them what I was saying, but whatever they were saying to them seemed to work. We won, so I’m happy.

For me and all the coaches here, the basketball part is about teaching, teaching, teaching. We work with them on their skills, but they also have to understand the mental approach to the game and that comes with experience. At this point, it’s almost like you have to take baby steps with them. It’s not like they grew up playing the game. It would be like teaching me soccer. I would have no idea where to go. And on top of that, we are trying to teach them in a different language. It always has to be translated, that is if what I’m saying even has an exact translation.

Tomorrow the Life Skills Sessions begin and Bob Lanier asked me to be a part of that as one of the presenters in the subject of leadership. I’m not really sure what I am going to say yet. I’m just going to wing it. I’ll give my interpretation of what leadership is and what it takes to be a leader, and then the kids get to ask all kinds of questions. I did not know I was going to be asked to speak, as I was not slated to. Bob just said, “Mark, why don’t you come and help me out?” But it’s really tough to say “no” to Bob Lanier. He is one of the guys I most admired, first as a player and then through his years of community service. Plus, I see him all the time, because he lives in Scottsdale. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

We are staying in a suburb of Johannesburg called Sandton. We went through Johannesburg to a place called Kliptown. You talk about poverty... I do not even know how to describe it. There is no electricity and no plumbing. They have public fountains where people can go get a bucket of water and take it back for use in their homes. They have public facilities to go to the bathroom, port-a-potties, and they have locks on those. Some of the kids who are unable find their parents with the keys just go wherever they can in the streets. There are dirt roads, no paved streets. The community is basically a shantytown with tin roofs. It’s unbelievable.

They have these mounds, which almost look like a landfill, where the people go for their food because it’s where the restaurants dump their leftovers. People walk there to get their food and sustenance from the landfill. They have another part of the landfill where people throw away old chairs, old tables or whatever and then others go scavenge off that.

The citizens say the government is building housing that they can rent in close proximity to where this shantytown is. The problem is that none of the 40,000 people in this community have jobs to pay the rent. Even though it’s subsidized government housing with low rent, they still don’t have the money. And even if they do have enough to cover the rent, they don’t have enough to pay for electricity.

The NBA has built a Reading Center here like the ones the Suns have built in Phoenix and it is the best looking building in the city, by a long shot. It hit me hard that the best building in the community is from a private industry like the NBA. That is kind of shocking.

With the politics of this country, it is only relatively recently that they have enjoyed equal rights. The turnaround is slow. I’m seeing it for the first time, but this program has been going on for three years and the other players who have been here before say that they can see some improvements from previous visits.

The people in the communities also see some progress, but it’s never fast enough. It’s only been 11 years since the fall of apartheid. Just the fact that they can go into white communities is progress. There are four distinct racial differentiations in South Africa: Blacks, Colored, Indians and Whites, and the Blacks could not go into these other communities without having the proper identification. There were specific times when you were allowed there and when you were supposed to leave.

So, yes, they can vote, and they have more access to go places and work. In that sense, the people do see progress because before, they didn’t even have that. They also have compulsory education now, which they did not have during apartheid. But when they start school at 7 years old they have to walk five kilometers to get there. It makes you appreciate a lot of things you have.

NBA veteran and Congo native Dikembe Mutombo is given a hero's welcome in Johannesburg.
(Catherine Steenkeste/NBAE Photos)
Rockets center and Congo native Dikembe Mutombo is here, and they just love that guy. He came in the room and the kids were singing songs to him and chanting. It was amazing to see. He has contributed so much, and has made such an effort to make the country and the world aware of the circumstances here in South Africa, as well as the continent of Africa in general. As bad as the circumstances are here in South Africa, as far as poverty, it’s even worse in other African countries, which I cannot even fathom.

Compared to the 40,000 people in Kliptown, there are five million people in Soweto. I was talking to one of the guys with the U.S. State Department who said that it was a little different in that you may have a large segment, two or three million people, who live in a shantytown, but you also have another one or two million who are doing better than that because of some of the progress.

It is hard for mindsets to change. It takes time. They still have not completely broken the mindsets, even though the laws no longer exist that allow it to continue, but progress is being made.

Jimmy Jackson, who made the trip as well, went to Senegal to visit Goree Island, where slaves were brought before they went into middle passage to America. Jimmy described the experience as life-changing and added that Senegal is also severly poverty-stricken.

There are quite a few players here. Jimmy, Marcus Camby, Maciej Lampe are all here. Dikembe’s here, of course, and Bob Lanier is the lead guy. Basketball Without Borders is an outreach program through the game of basketball as a charitable organization. They brought what is considered to be the 100 best high school-aged players here to be coached, to go through drills, to play, to be evaluated and get some firsthand NBA knowledge on how they can become better players. Also, they have the opportunity to be in a program where they talk about life skills and being an activist in the community to be a positive role model.

AIDS is epidemic here in Africa and there is a program that addresses the issue and other issues important to these kids. Education, of course, and reading, are big issues with the league’s Read to Achieve program as well. We’re trying to get these kids some exposure through our medium, which is basketball, to get an education. Centers are being built in impoverished communities, food, clothing, school items and books are being donated to those most in need.

We went to the American school today where we received a list of the players, and we started evaluating and picking teams. We watched them play today and we came back to the to hold our draft where we picked the players we wanted. Tomorrow will be the first time I’ll have my own individual members. Jimmy and I are actually coaching the "Suns" team together.

We have 10 kids and there are four different languages. We speak English, somebody speaks Zulu, someone else speaks Cameroon, somebody else speaks French, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this all pans out. We have two English-speaking coaches and all the players speak different languages amongst themselves. That starts tomorrow. I picked the team, Jimmy’s going to help me coach, and we’re going to do our clinics and the actual coaching of the team. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005

I arrived today after a 19-hour flight and I'm exhausted. We came in from Atlanta and stopped at an island called Sal, off the coast of West Africa to refuel, then did another eight hours down here to Johannesburg. I didn’t really sleep much, so once I hit Johannesburg, I drove to the countryside to get to the hotel in Nelson Mandela Square, and pretty much crashed when I got to the room. I’m probably going to go crash again once I get done making this first entry in my journal.

My initial impressions were just how spread out the city is. It’s just like any other major city in the United States or Canada, where you come through the suburbs before entering the main part of the city. One of the things that hit me right away is that there are a lot of people just walking around. It’s almost as if they’re coming in from the countryside waiting around for jobs, to be hired as day laborers.

In the more affluent neighborhoods, they’re more like compounds. They have razor wire on the walls, barbed wire on top of the walls and they’re gated. The big compound that houses the hotel is like that. There are walls around it and security cameras all around. It’s nice and they’re very accommodating, but you do notice the great discrepancy, at least in my first impression, between the haves and have-nots.