Hornets Duo Travels to Africa, Where Global Game is Growing

By Sam Perley

Back on March 10, 2017, the Charlotte Hornets were in the midst of putting together an impressive 40-point victory over the visiting Orlando Magic. Undoubtedly though, the highlight of the night was a monstrous, second-quarter, down-the-lane, and-one dunk by Marvin Williams over then-former, now-current teammate, Bismack Biyombo.

After the final horn sounded, Williams mentioned in an interview that before the game, Biyombo had extended the Hornets veteran a summer invitation to his African homeland to work on some basketball-related humanitarian projects. Williams – who also called Biyombo “the best shot-blocker [he’s] ever played with” because of his ability to challenge everything at the rim – became jokingly worried that the offer would be rescinded after his thunderous slam.

Unsurprisingly, no bad blood ever developed between the two long-time friends, who played together in Charlotte during the 2014-15 season. Although Williams didn’t make the discussed trip last summer (he instead volunteered at a Jr. NBA Camp in Malaysia), he and Biyombo will both be participating in this year’s NBA Africa Game, which tip offs on Saturday, August 4 at 11 a.m. EST on ESPN2 in Pretoria, South Africa.

The format for this exhibition contest will pit Biyombo – originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – and a team comprised of other native-born or first-generation African NBA players against Williams and additional competitors from outside the continent. Proceeds will be distributed to the Nelson Mandela Foundation in honor of the centenary celebrations for the country’s late anti-apartheid leader and first-ever black head of state.

Biyombo, a Team Africa Co-Captain this year, will now have taken part in each of the three NBA Africa Games thus far, which first began in 2015. This will be the first time Williams has participated in the NBA Africa Game, as he’ll soon join Charlotte teammates Nicolas Batum (Team Africa 2015) and Kemba Walker (Team World 2017) as alums of the event.

In the days leading up to the game, Biyombo, Williams and the rest of the NBA volunteers will take part in local charity projects as well as the 16th edition of the Basketball Without Borders Africa camp. Established back in 2001, this global basketball development and community outreach program will bring together more than 80 elite young African players for hands-on, direct interaction working with NBA players, coaches and personnel.

Biyombo has been a mainstay on the African BWB circuit for years, while Williams took part in BWB Africa 2010 in Dakar, Senegal. While the NBA Africa Game may be the most visible and publicized part of the week for the two veterans, it’s the BWB Camp that may in fact be the most empowering.

For decades, ongoing crises related to hunger, disease and civil war have led to troubling and outright deadly situations all over Africa. Because of this, basketball and other sports are understandably not viewed with the same level of importance or priority as opposed to perhaps other areas of the world.

These young BWB Africa campers – many of whom come from these same challenging circumstances – sometimes don’t have the necessary infrastructure, resources or flexibility in place to devote as much time to basketball in their home countries as their talent may warrant.

Glancing at the most recent FIBA World Basketball rankings, not a single African country is ranked inside the top-30 and only three sub-Saharan nations in Nigeria, Senegal and Angola sit inside the top-60. No African team has ever been within striking distance of medaling at the Summer Olympics, while Nigeria and Angola’s co-ninth-place finishes at the 2006 FIBA World Cup are to date the best showings at the competition by any continental squad since 1950.

Despite the lack of international success, there has still been substantial progress with regards to basketball in Africa over the last 30 years with more advancements looming on the horizon.

A generation ago, NBA teams weren’t looking to bring on international players, let alone ones from Africa. The talent bubble, at the time, was mostly confined to North America, mainly because of reputation mixed with convenience and proximity. But with the emergence of African players like Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo (who, like Biyombo, is also from the DRC) and Manute Bol, teams began scouting the continent for uncultivated talent.

This eventful week in South Africa is proof that times have certainly changed. More than 80 players have now appeared in a regular season NBA game who are either directly from Africa or hold first-generation status.

Efforts like the NBA Africa Game and BWB camps are working to raise that number higher and higher. Thirteen native-born players representing eight different countries were on NBA opening night rosters last season. Nine BWB Africa alumni have now been taken in the NBA Draft, including current players Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, Gorgui Dieng and Luc Mbah a Moute.

In the United States and other more developed countries, up-and-coming players generally aspire to make the NBA someday. Elsewhere overseas and Africa in particular, any professional contract or a college scholarship can be an amazing, life-changing development. Much of the recent interest level in African players is because of the BWB camps and the invaluable teachings and visibility that they’ve provided 3,000 global participants from 133 different countries so far to date.

But the impact of the NBA Africa Game itself shouldn’t be underestimated or easily dismissed either though. For many fans in attendance, this could very well be their first and perhaps only chance to ever see NBA players live in competition. Much like how Biyombo has modeled his game after Mutombo – a Hall-of-Famer, countryman and national icon – from afar, the inspiration a two-hour basketball game can potential provide has the ability to linger for a lifetime.

The first two NBA Africa Games were both sold-out affairs and it’s safe to conclude the 2018 version and beyond should continue bringing much more of the same level of interest. With ambassadors like Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams and other NBA players consistently in the fold, the future of the game in Africa and across the globe is assuredly in strong hands.