A poster child for NBA global outreach, Thon Maker embraces Pistons trip to Mexico City
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
NEW ORLEANS – If it weren’t for the branding implications, the NBA really ought to consider a name change. It long ago outgrew the “National” part of National Basketball Association. And that, in a nutshell, explains what the Pistons are doing playing a regular-season game in Mexico City.
There were 108 players from 38 countries dotting NBA rosters when the season opened. The Pistons have three international players: No. 1 pick Sekou Doumbouya, born in Guinea and raised in France; Svi Mykhailiuk from Ukraine; and Thon Maker, born in South Sudan and raised in Australia before making his way as a teen to the United States and Canada.
As someone who lived on three continents before graduating high school, nobody understands how basketball can shrink the globe – and nobody will appreciate the impact the Mexico City game will have on the kids who idolize professional athletes – more than Maker.
“This definitely means a lot more to me,” Maker said after the Pistons practiced Tuesday in New Orleans and prepared to head to Mexico. “Basketball has taken me to a lot of special places. This is the first time for me to be in Mexico.”
Maker escaped the civil war that split Sudan into two countries with a stopover in Uganda before family members arranged for refugee status in Australia when Maker was 5. He first took to soccer but was discovered by Edward Smith, an American born in Liberia who also had seen basketball take him around the world.
A basketball player recruited to Massachusetts and eventually settling at Chaminade in Hawaii, Smith first got into coaching but later felt a calling for player development and especially for finding kids just like Maker.
“He decided he wanted to develop rather than coach because he wanted to help create talent instead of manage it,” Maker said. “That’s when he went to Australia and started his own academy so kids like myself at the time that needed a way out and loved the game, that were competitive or couldn’t afford it … he coached us for free. I lived with him for 10 years. He’s still doing it to this day.”
When Maker joined the Pistons at mid-season and immediately stepped into a rotation role for a team that needed a strong finish to secure a playoff berth, Dwane Casey quickly came to admire Maker’s selflessness and drive. Nobody has ever questioned his commitment to improvement or to team goals.
“I really love the game,” he said. “When I’m playing or on the sideline or just watching the game, I’m always, constantly, involved in some sort of basketball talk.”
He’s eager to get to Mexico and serve as inspirational example to kids who are no closer to being able to see themselves as NBA players than Maker was a decade ago while being discovered on the soccer fields outside of Perth.
“Training young kids, I get so passionate about it,” he said. “Whenever any of the coaches bring their sons, some of the players, we just play the game, teach ’em little nuances of the game here and there. It’s just so much fun, it’s so competitive. To see them loving it at that young age, I feel like I pass down what I know.
“I’ll be sure to pass that down – let them know anything is possible. People say that a lot, but, really – anything is possible. I never pictured myself here. I had dreams of being here, but I never really pictured myself being here. When I tell kids, sometimes they look at me with a blank face. They actually don’t believe me. But they’re young. They’ll start to work and see it come together and then they’ll start to believe it more.”
No one would have imagined a generation ago that players from Europe, South American, Australia, Africa and Asia would soon account for nearly a quarter of league rosters. The flashpoint was the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, players like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley serving as charismatic ambassadors to the world.
The Dream Team’s stepchild is the NBA global outreach program, which brought the Pistons to London for a 2013 game and now to Mexico City – where no one will take more seriously the responsibility of ambassadorship than Maker.
The odds against him, a kid born amid a civil war in a country with almost zero basketball presence, making it to the NBA were longer than his inseam. Nobody’s story will resonate more among the five dozen NBA players from the four teams – the Pistons, Mavericks, Spurs and Suns – who’ll bring the NBA to the kids of Mexico City this week than Thon Maker’s.