Globe Trotters

by July 15, 2008

By Rob Marriott

It is dusk in Kabala, Mali. Two sizable hollow block structures, sitting about 200 yards apart, are aglow with interior orange light. The rumble of basketballs, the squeak of sneakers, coaches barking instructions can be heard. In the flatness and silence of the surrounding landscape, the buildings look like the last two gymnasiums on earth. This is where the African leg of the adidas Nations Basketball camp has set up shop. We are in the Ben Omar Sy Sports Facility, the Mali government’s main investment in its national sports program, a fitting backdrop for adidas’ project to extend competitive basketball’s reach far beyond its usual domain. For the next few days, 20 or so under-18 from the US and Africa participate in adidas new global experiment in social outreach, marketing and talent farming.

The sunset has provided some relief from Mali’s arid heat, but not much. It is the end of another long, hot training session and the players, coaches and staff are ready to get back on the bus, get something to eat and sleep off the powerful fatigue that only this kind of heat produces.

Kyle Lowry, one of two adidas-sponsored NBA players brought along to mentor the young players (Josh Smith being the other), now in his fifth year with the Grizzlies, minces no words. “Maaan, I need some AC like a mug.”

Meanwhile, Josh Smith’s father, a gray-haired man with a Southern swagger who accompanies Josh on most of his trips, quips: “AC? Boy, we from the backwoods of Georgia. This heat ain’t nothing, man. I’m back home right here.”

For many on the adidas Nations team, including the coaches and staff, this is their first trip to Africa. Team US includes some of the best players in their age group. Players like Jerry Brown out of California, Tyler Griffey and Derrick Favors—a consensus top-10 member of the class of ’09—represent the future of American basketball. For players accustomed to the best facilities and star treatment afforded to bright basketball prospects in the US, the Malian heat is but one of many factors requiring some adjustment. The flies, the language, the unfamiliar foods, the perceived threat of malaria and the languid pace of things keeps both the staff and the players off balance. There is a palpable stress on the players and coaches as they are confronted with the realities of moving in Africa.

Team Africa stays on the Sports complex. Their dorm rooms will soon become the location for a basketball school. The players from Africa are much taller than the Americans on average, although with thinner frames. They hail from several African countries: Congo, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal.

Team US and the rest of the coaching staff and adidas personnel load up on the coach bus and return to Bamako, Mali’s capital city, following the nasal sing-song of the police escort’s siren. The bus runs down winding streets, past small stores and houses lit by single flourescent lights. Babacar Sy, the Senegalese coach and director of Team Africa, is on his iPhone. In many ways, this leg of the multi-continent adidas Nations campaign is his show. He is a fairly silent man, who moves with a quiet precision. He has handpicked many of these players on team Africa and is the go-between; the thin bridge spanning the chasm between the corporate world of Adidas and professional leagues in Europe and the states and the hopes, dreams of the young players. One can feel the weight of the responsibility of such a role in his demeanor. He is a cool head. And speaks loudly with silence.

Up in the front of the bus is Darren Matsubara, known as “Mats” to all; he is the Nations General Manager (like on the trip to Germany Jake followed on this site in the spring). A Japanese-American who has had success as a player and coach, he speaks about the Nations program with genuine excitement. The camp concept is a natural evolution from a prior incarnation when adidas ran camps in the US for young players and try to give them the fundamentals and from those players looked for prospects. In the last two years, adidas Nations has taken a more global, and more intimate, approach. Choosing the top 12-15 players from the region, adidas now runs basketball camps in Latin America, China and Greater Asia, Europe and train them along with the elite players 18 and unders from the US.

Says Mats: “We are introducing characteristics needed to be successful—in basketball or in the real world. And the hope and strategy is that these top 10-15 players, these influencers, bring that back to their communities.”

In each place they scrimmage and play exhibition games after a few days of intensive training. This is all a build up to an All-World tournament to be held in Dallas, TX next mont, which will determine the “best” young team in the world. The US is used to being the prohibitive favorites, but as we’ve seen in recent international contests, its no longer a given that the world leader in basketball will take home the gold.

7:30 the next morning, the bus loads on our way out of Bamako. The conversation on the bus is truly a global affair, a mixture of French, Ebonics and the occasional outburst in German. A police escort equipped with sirens leads us back to Kabala. We cross the river, past Mali’s unique architecture and sparsely built areas.

The bus elicits smiles and waves from the men, women and children on the street. As much as the escorts, the adidas gear and logo, and the rich American presence they announce causes some excitement in Mali, we are constantly reminded that here in Mali—as is the case throughout sub-Saharan Africa—basketball is a secondary, if not tertiary, concern. While the gymnasiums at the sports complex are sufficient, they are clearly an afterthought compared to the Elysian soccer fields next door. On an adjacent field, the national soccer team is practicing for a big game versus Sudan. It is clear: African excitement for sport is reserved, almost exclusively, for Football.

We meet with team Africa for breakfast in a sunny cafeteria on the grounds of the sports center. We are served a traditional French breakfast:  Bread, butter, jam and some sort of fake Nutella. The staff of the cafeteria has set up a small television which runs the news: a woman wrapped in a shawl, head completely covered reading news in front of an African print. They show a traditional ceremony. Drums from the television mingle with the morning banter. The sun is on the rise and the heat begins its assault on the day. The ceiling fans spin but their influence on the temperature wanes. The flies form shifting configurations on the table, waiting for their opportunities to pitch on the unattended jam.

The soldiers and onlookers are calm, quiet like the arid, sun-bleached landscapes. We walk into one of two gymnasiums. The hollow block walls allow a cross-breeze, allow a fine dust to settle on the painted floor. Our entry into the gym awakens several birds, and they make frantic circles in the rafters. Accustomed to state of the art, the US players have to adjust their games, their attitudes, their mentalities.

The heat in the gym is stifling. This is grassroots basketball, for better or worse. The teams run through their drills. The Americans are more developed in terms of skill sets and training. They are are better built but the African players have height and enormous athletic ability. Lionel Hollins, former NBA player, an assistant coach for the Bucks and the head coach of the African team, has a soft-spoken, calm approach. His assistant, Joe Touomou, is a more hard driving personality. He thinks the Americans need to be sterner with the players. The instructions are given in both English and French. The coaches gather the players and break on “Nations!”

Watching from the side, always fresh in the latest adidas gear, is Daren Kalish, director of Basketball asset Management and Asset Management. “adidas is a global brand,” he says. “Even with the adidas Superstar camps we used to bring players from overseas to train, so global is in our DNA. The Adidas Nations program is kind of a natural outgrowth of what we’ve been doing all along. The most difficult thing is the politics. There are politics everywhere, whether its in the US, China or Africa. The key is to be able to get the top-level players. It is very important that the group of people you are working with be able to maneuver through the politics.”

The players warm up and then run drills, working off picks, practicing zone defense, passing, post-up moves and so on. Brendan Lane and  Tyler Griffey, the sole white boys on the trip, turn beet red at times. I pray they have put sunscreen on.

A slight breeze gives some ephemeral relief. The large adidas banners rise slightly. They read “One world. One brotherhood.” The team has run in China. Europe. After Africa they will do one in Latin America.

Says Kalish: “From a marketing standpoint, we talk about basketball as a brotherhood. Here in Africa, it’s nice to see that brotherhood actually come together. Just experiencing Africa is another piece of some of the life skills we are trying to teach. We talk about being humble and appreciating what we have. But when you come to a place like Mali and you see the stark differences in wealth, it hammers the lessons home. We have to realize, look we have it good and I owe it to myself and my family to take advantage of the opportunities. In my opinion, this trip is more about life, than it is about basketball.”

After the practice, Coach Hollins speaks about intensity. “I still think the United States has superior individual players.” He pauses for effect. “But not here (points to his head) and here (points to his heart). I mean passion. How are the African players gonna learn when you guys aren’t setting an example?”

At lunch, a couple of the African players explain that in Niger there is no solidarity and no money for sports, adding that even if they were fortunate enough to get a NBA contract or other opportunities to play, their government may find a way to take it from him.

During a session on nutrition, coach Bob Calvin takes pains to make no assumptions about what food and drink is available to the African players. He tells the guys to find protein, carbs and clean water where ever they can find it. Even if they have to fish themselves. “Good source of protein.”

One player from Chad, Ramoss Noubaissem, arrives just after the last training session. After 72 hours of flight delays and bouncing around from one African airport to the next, he sits in the back of the bus having missed almost the entire camp. He sits in a half daze. Again, this is grassroots b-ball.

We arrive at the Pavilion des Sport, a less than stellar venue, where the Nations team is to play their first exhibition game. Outside the entrance, Muslims bow to the east and do their daily prayers on prayer rugs. Entrée Sale de Spectacles it reads above the entrance. The court stuns us: it is a run down, dust-covered oven. The place doesn’t compare to most high school gymnasiums. One hoop seems to be at 11 feet. There are several dead spots on the floor. Did I mention it is hot?

Team Africa takes it in stride. Coach Hollins goes over the plays with the guys again and keeps his instructions short and sweet. “Have fun.” The coaches ask Romass, the player from Chad, if he is ready to play after all his travel.  “I didn’t come all this way to sit. I came to play.” They break on “Africa.”

Lowry turns on his iPod and speakers. As Malian dignitaries in sparkling headdresses begin to file in, the strains of Young Jeezy’s “Standing Ovation” fill the gymnasium. The adidas folks have done their best to brand the space, although a massive poster for a local cell phone company still takes up a lot of space. The Minister of Sport, who has been very supportive of the Nations project, is announced and the two teams, coaches and Adidas staff line up to greet the minister and his entourage.

The tip off is won by Team US but in the opening minutes it’s all Africa, as the “home team” opens with a 7-0 run. Timeout. The game is marked by team Africa’s excellent defense and team play. Team US, a little lost with guard Dexter Strickland sitting this one out with an injury, tries to compensate with aggression. The refs are not calling fouls and the  players expend a lot of energy complaining. The heat is Team Africa’s sixth man. The crowd is sparse but more people slowly filter in throughout the first quarter. They are polite and supportive but clearly see the exhibition as more a curiosity than sport spectacle. There is a much bigger event tonight: Alpha Blondie, the reggae pop star, is performing at the nearby stadium.

“Don’t blame the refs,” explains one coach after a 6-point loss by the Americans. “You guys missed 22 free throws and lost by 6. If you want to blame somebody, look at the free-throw line.”

“That is what sport is all about,” Mats tells the players as they pack their things and drag back to the bus. “Overcoming adversity. You have to have these attributes to go pro. You have to have these attributes to succeed.”

Later Mats tells me this is the perfect outcome. “They are all used to playing in the best environments, ” he explains. “Look, the physical can be taught, especially if you have talent. The mental can be taught. But the emotion must be experienced. You don’t know what you will do until you experience it. This is what it takes to be a player in life and in ball. This is on the job training.”

After the game, the bus drives past the packed stadium of 25,000 where Alpha Blondie is performing. It is still hard for the American players to grasp basketball’s third-class status here.

The next morning, the players dressed in their whites and visited a school across the river from the hotel to run a small clinic for youngsters 8 and 9 years old. The court’s concrete floor is full of cracks. The most remarkable/insane element of the court is the backboards, which are not at a 90-degree angle to the baskets, instead leaning in at almost 45 degrees. Clearly the folks that built the court had never seen or played the sport. This is the main obstacle in African basketball—lack of facilities or knowledge of the game. But everyone makes the most of it and the coaches and players instruct the kids on how to shoot, dribble and pass. The kids love it. Babacar gathers the kids afterwards and signs them up for his program “giving back.” Here was a new set of prospects. After seeing what seems like unimaginable poverty, the American contingent seems particularly excited, having found catharsis in being able to do something positive. “This is some real shit here,” says one.

One kid is a Malian who lived in the Bronx and is now back with his family. He is excited to play ball again and speaks fluent New York ghetto. The kid has handles, too.

From Mali the group travels west to Dakar, Senegal, which is impressive. The women are incredibly beautiful. The city is vibrant and the weather less oppressive. And in Dakar, the Marius Ndiaye gymnasium the team is slated to play in reflects a much bigger commitment and concern for basketball than in Mali. It is bigger, well lit and reflects a more developed basketball culture. The young players from Babacar’s program Giving Back are on hand, dressed in matching tee shirts and dribbling with some skills during warm ups. A deejay plays French and Senegalese records throughout the game. The crowd is still sparse but clearly more basketball savvy.

But there are still hiccups. The shot clocks don’t function, so it is left to a young man to call out the time as he watches a monitor. This would become an ongoing joke as he sometimes lost himself during the excitement of the game. “6 seconds…5 seconds,” he would say over a microphone during the action. “…3 seconds…4 seconds.”

The whistle blows and the game starts much the same way as in Mali. Team Africa opens up a lead. The game is ugly, marked by turnovers and sloppy play. But the US team shows more discipline and has made some attitude and game adjustments from their loss in Mali. Strcikland is also back in the lineup, which helps matters. The African team, on the other hand, make a number of mental mistakes and take bad shots. This time it was Team Africa forcing, passing less and taking ill-advised shots. The game is marked by some excellent defensive plays on both sides, and in the end the US wins going away.

“It’s 1-1 now,” Mats says with a smile and a clap. “This will make Dallas fun.”

After the game, tall youngsters from the crowd touch and shoot basketballs, clearly for the first time. One youngster, only 12, shoots. Judging from his height he might hit 6’8 before he graduates high school. He makes a number of shots.

“Oh we might have to take him back with us,” said one of the coaches. He was only half joking.