Dieng, Wolves Have Strong Ties To Basketball Without Borders

Dieng, Wolves Have Strong Basketball Without Borders Ties

Mark Remme
Wolves Editor/Writer

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Imagine at age 19, you were still learning basketball. You’ve played the game for years in your native country—one located on a continent still relatively untapped in the grand scheme of international hoops—but only in an organized setting for a year or two. You’ve got all the physical tools to, one day, be a professional player, but you’re still raw. You haven’t learned all the tricks yet, and you’re still learning your positioning.

Now we’ll put you on the court with Dwight Howard—a perennial All-Star and former NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He’ll show you some drills, and you’ll guard him in the post. What type of impression would you leave on the man widely believed to be the best center in the NBA?

Gorgui Dieng lived that experience. As a teenager out of Senegal, Dieng was invited to the 2009 Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a top prospect from his continent who was just being discovered. Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer were among the players and coaches leading the event, and as it happens Howard—coming off an NBA Finals run with the Magic just three months earlier—had the chance to see Dieng up close.

His reaction?

“I remember the day I saw him, and he was telling me, ‘You’re going to be in the NBA soon,’” Howard said. “And when he left he said, ‘See you soon in the NBA.’ It was very funny that everything came true.”

It turns out that Basketball Without Borders camp was the beginning of Dieng’s accelerated basketball career. Over the next four years, Dieng transformed from an up-and-coming international prospect to an NCAA champion at the University of Louisville to a first round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. This winter, if all goes according to plan, Dieng will again share the court with Howard as the Wolves and Rockets face off for the first time on Nov. 23.

Basketball Without Borders (BWB) is an ever-growing initiative that pairs NBA personnel with international coaches and prospects throughout the world each offseason. This year, Wolves assistant coaches Terry Porter and Jack Sikma participated in Portugal’s BWB camp. As the Wolves prepare to play two international games on neutral courts this season—one preseason tilt on Sunday in Montreal against the Celtics and a Dec. 4 regular season contest against the Spurs in Mexico City—it continues to be apparent just how international the game is becoming and how much of a connection the league, and the Wolves, have all over the world.

Take for instance that 2009 BWB event in South Africa. At the time, Dieng was a prospect about to embark on a four-year journey that would take him to an NBA training camp this fall. One of the instructors at that camp was Milt Newton, who was hired as the Wolves general manager this fall. He worked with Dieng during that camp and, as fate would have it, ended up in the front office of Dieng’s team during his rookie year. Along with Howard, Bosh and Boozer, Nate Robinson participated in that BWB camp in Johannesburg. He and Boozer both were in Portugal this summer with Porter and Sikma teaching the game to another group of young, talented international players.

Who knows which ones might be next in making the jump to college ball or the NBA?

“It is cool, it’s great, but it’s also very natural, too,” Sikma said. “The game has really grown internationally. A number of coaches over there were playing when I was playing in the league, so we talked a lot about back then. It’s amazing how it’s grown.”

Opening doors to the NBA

Basketball Without Borders is the NBA and FIBA’s global basketball development and community outreach program that works with young kids in different areas of the world and encourages positive social change through education, health and wellness. The top youth players 19 and under in Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa are selected by the NBA and FIBA to participate in these camps, where they will train with and learn from NBA players and coaches.

Since 2001, the program has featured about 300 NBA players, coaches and team personnel from 30 different teams. More than 1,700 kids from more than 120 countries and territories have participated. These camps have taken place in 21 cities and 18 countries on five continents.

According to NBA.com’s Fran Blinebury, there are currently 11 BWB alums on NBA rosters and another four—including Dieng—were drafted in 2013. Nicolas Batum, Marc Gasol, Greivis Vasquez, Danilo Gallinari and Andrea Bagnani are all BWB alums.

Thinking back to their playing days, Sikma and Porter both said it’s amazing how much the game has grown internationally and how much time and effort the NBA and FIBA have put toward helping expand into all corners of the world.

Sikma played in the late 1970s through the early 1990s, and Porter’s career stretched from the mid 1980s into the early 2000s. They played when much of the Dream Team roster was in its prime, and by and large that 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team is credited with helping ignite the popularity of the sport around the world. Over the past two decades, the NBA itself has transformed from having a handful of international players in the league to having a presence on most teams’ rosters.

Minnesota is a prime example. The Wolves have six players on their current roster hailing from countries outside the U.S.—including one from Africa, one from the Caribbean and four from Europe.

“It’s truly amazing,” Porter said. “I mean, [Commissioner David] Stern and his staff and the NBA league office people have done an unbelievable job of building the brand globally.”

Two of those international Wolves players have recent Basketball Without Borders roots. Dieng, of course, was a young athlete who participated in the camp. Alexey Shved was a featured player at the BWB camp in Moscow last year. He, along with former teammate Andrei Kirilenko, had an opportunity to work with kids in Russia and help build excitement around playing basketball.

That particular camp came right after Team Russia won Bronze in London, and having Shved and Kirilenko—two of the Russian team’s top players—coming back to teach the camp helped raise extra attention surrounding the sport.

Shved said it made an impact.

“Basketball in Russia is not so popular like here—we have [soccer] and hockey—but not basketball,” Shved said. “But right now, after Olympic games and after this camp, after everything, kids start working to play basketball. They’re going to school. It’s really good, because we can do this more like a lot of kids go not to play soccer and hockey. They want to play basketball.”

Europe is a basketball stronghold, as is Australia and parts of central and South America. So what areas of the world might be the next to increase their love of the sport? Sikma said he thinks Africa is the continent that might have significant growth over the next decade or two.

“I don’t think anyone would have predicted it back then,” Sikma said. “I think they’ve gotten a pretty good handle of where it’s going to go. Twenty years from now, or 10 years from now, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 20 kids/players in the league with African roots, grew up in Africa. That’s an untouched one.”

An ambassador for the game

Sikma has participated in three BWB programs. His first event was in Mexico City when he was with the Rockets, and at that camp he said he saw Celtics rookie Kelly Olynyk participate. He went with BWB to Slovenia last year, and this year he went to Portugal.

He said he enjoys the opportunity to teach the game in the offseason, evaluate young talent and watch the young players learn and compete while getting acquainted with NBA-type sets.

Portugal, Sikma said, is a country that is trying to rebuild the strength of its basketball community and has a strong support group working to do just that. He enjoyed being part of the process.

“It was a great success, and it’s enjoyable,” Sikma said. “It’s a camp. You get to touch base with the NBA office. You get to touch base with other NBA coaches and some players who aren’t your own. And it’s three days of camp with the kids. It’s fantastic.”

Porter said he’s always wanted to take part in the program because he heard so many positive stories and feedback about going over and seeing the skill set of young players and helping them improve.

What he found is that not only can he make a difference and help grow excitement around the game, but he was able to learn about these up-and-coming players as well as how the game is taught around the world.

“You can just tell right way they have a skill set and the speed, athleticism, something that just sets them apart,” Porter said. “But overall it’s just a great experience. To be able to see another part of the world, another part of the culture, just listen to the different coaches talk about their style of basketball, what they think about the NBA game. Basketball, what you find out, doesn’t matter what country you’re in, which part of the world you’re in. Coaches have the same situation that they’ve been trying to manage as they do in the states.”

Appreciation for the opportunity

Dieng takes nothing for granted. Every day he comes to the gym ready to work and try to improve his craft. He’s come a long way since 2009, and he still has a ways to go in translating his style of play to the NBA game. But the ambition, the drive and the work ethic are all there. So is the skill set.

He’s prepared to do what it takes to ensure a long, prosperous basketball career.

“I’m just going to play—that’s the game, they pay us to play,” Dieng said. “Whatever happens off the court is off the court. But when you’re on the court, you need to earn your paycheck. That’s all that matters. I will do whatever to earn my paycheck. I don’t want to feel like I’m stealing the money.”

That’s an old-school philosophy, and it comes from a player who, just six years ago, was learning to play an organized version of basketball. Now, he’s a first round selection with potential to become an efficient and valuable rim protector in the NBA.

That will likely include going head-to-head with Howard, the larger-than-life superstar who once prophesized he’d see Dieng in an NBA uniform. Four years later, he’ll get that chance.

At that point, Dieng will be using all the lessons he learned along the way to try and keep Howard’s productivity in check. He’ll be able to tap into his experience at Basketball Without Borders, his time attending the Sports for Education and Economic Development Academy in Thies, Senegal (where he said he realized his love for basketball and the opportunities the game presented him), and he’ll be able to channel the three years he spent at Louisville honing his game under Rick Pitino.

He took a lot of major steps in those four years, and one of the gateways for where he is today took place in Johannesburg during that Fall 2009 Basketball Without Borders clinic.

He’s appreciative of every opportunity he’s received, and he’s driven to make sure he honors those opportunities.

“I think it’s just having the right attitude,” Dieng said. “Everything I had, I worked for it. I think if I keep the right attitude and the right mindset, I’ll go far. I understand that at a really young age, and the people that are older to me and have more experience than me, I will ask of them. That’s what will get me better.”

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