NBA Africa Game Gets an Assist from Kemba Walker

By Sam Perley

Kemba Walker’s journey to the 2017 NBA Africa Game is one that required over 8,000 miles of travel, but the voyage is certainly worth it in order to make an impact that could last far longer. With help from a number of players, coaches and other personnel from around the league, the second-ever NBA Africa Game will take place on Saturday, Aug. 5th at the Ticketpro Dome in Johannesburg, a 20,000-seat venue located in the north of South Africa’s most-populated city.

“It’s cool. I’m looking forward to [the trip]. [Going to Africa is] not something I would have done a few years ago,” said Walker in early July. “I’m trying to do more now and to get invited to that was cool. I’m happy I’m able to make that trip. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be fun. Africa is a dream trip. That’s something people have on their bucket list and I’m able to go through the NBA, who does a great job with things like that.”

Along with Dirk Nowitzki (Dallas Mavericks), Thabo Sefolosha (Utah Jazz) and Luol Deng (Los Angeles Lakers), Walker will have the honor of serving as one of the event’s four captains. The exhibition, which will be televised live by ESPN2 at 11 a.m. E.T. on Aug. 5, will feature a collection of NBA players without direct or second-generation African ties against ones who are either from the continent or have at least one parent who is.

“I couldn’t believe it. Me? It could have been anybody,” said Walker when he found out he was named a captain for the event. “We’ve got some big-time names here and I’m one of the guys who gets to be captain alongside the legendary Dirk Nowitzki. Of course, it’s kind of surreal. I’m excited for the opportunity and I’m excited to be looked at in that light. I’m just looking to represent a lot of people, the Charlotte Hornets and my family.”

As of Thursday evening, Walker was still unsure whether he would ultimately play in the Africa Game as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. Regardless of his status, Walker and the German-born Nowitzki will still be tasked with leading Team World. Accompanying the pair on the squad will be free agent Leandro Barbosa (Brazil), Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks; Latvia), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics), Wilson Chandler (Denver Nuggets), DeMarcus Cousins (New Orleans Pelicans), Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets), Courtney Lee (New York Knicks), Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors) and C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers).

Deng, a native of South Sudan, and the Swiss-born Sefolosha, whose father hails from South Africa, will captain Team Africa. Joining them will be former-Hornet Bismack Biyombo (Orlando Magic; Democratic Republic of Congo), Clint Capela (Houston Rockets; born in Switzerland to an Angolan father and Congolese mother), Gorgui Dieng (Minnesota Timberwolves; Senegal), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers; Cameroon), Serge Ibaka (Toronto Raptors; Congo), Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston Rockets; Cameroon), Salah Mejri (Dallas Mavericks; Tunisia), Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets; Democratic Republic of Congo), Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers; born in the United States to a Sierra Leonean father and Nigerian mother) and Dennis Schröder

(Atlanta Hawks; born in Germany to a Gambian mother).

“These are guys I compete against all the time,” said Walker via conference call from Johannesburg on Thursday, August 3. “The way that we interact, I don’t know if people would really understand. This is one big brotherhood and I love the fact that we can all turn the switch off. A lot of us are friends, but whenever we play against each other, all of that goes away. As soon as we step off the court, we can be friends again. I love the fact that we can all do that.”

Hornets assistant coach Pat Delany has also been invited to participate at the NBA Africa Game as well. Current NBA head coaches Alvin Gentry (New Orleans Pelicans), Michael Malone (Denver Nuggets), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat) as well as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo (Democratic Republic of Congo) and former NBA players James Jones, Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Elton Brand will also serve in some capacity or be in attendance at the NBA Africa Game as well.

Walker added, “These guys are super cool. It’s different when you’re playing some of the guys because you see how intense they are. But now that we’re all in the same environment, it’s definitely a lot different. Coach Spoelstra [is] a guy my team [the Charlotte Hornets] has been going at it with for a few years now. To be around him has been really cool. He’s a really good guy as well as is Dirk. Dirk is a guy who I’ve never really got the chance to be around. Just to get a chance to be around him has been really cool.”

Walker will additionally spend a few days working with Basketball Without Borders Africa at the American International School of Johannesburg. Founded in 2001, Basketball Without Borders is the NBA and FIBA’s development and community outreach program that brings together young basketball players from around the world in an effort to promote the sport and social change.

Basketball Without Borders held its first camp in Africa in 2003 in Johannesburg and has since hosted clinics in Senegal (2010) and Angola, the latter of which was attended by Hornets center Cody Zeller in 2016.

This year, 80 boys and girls from 26 different African countries will participate in the 15th edition of Basketball Without Borders Africa. The NBA players and coaches involved will lead campers through a wide range of basketball-related activities including on-court drills, 5-on-5 competitions and daily seminars focused on topics like leadership, communication and health.

Since its inception over 15 years ago, Basketball Without Borders has hosted just under 3,000 total players from 134 countries and territories in 31 different cities stretching across six continents. A total of 46 campers, including nine who participated in Basketball Without Borders Africa, have been selected in the NBA Draft during this time frame.

As the sport continues to grow in popularity in Africa, more resources have been focused on scouting talent across the continent. At the start of the 2016-17 NBA season, there were 14 African-born players on opening-night NBA rosters, hailing from the countries of Cameroon, Cape Verde, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan and Tunisia.

There are also a number of second-generation African players around the league including Milwaukee’s 2017 All-NBA Second Team honoree Giannis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria), New York Knicks rookie Frank Ntilikina (Rwanda), Toronto Raptors rookie OG Anunoby (Nigeria), Portland Trail Blazers forward Al-Farouq Aminu (Nigeria) and NBA veteran Boris Diaw (Senegal).

Walker has also gotten to take part in a handful of other non-basketball-related activities, including a safari (self-described as “nothing short of amazing”) and a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. The Hornets point guard even pitched in to help build 10 houses for local residents in need.

“I think for me, going to that village, it really kind of put things into perspective for me. The way some people live, it’s really humbling. I told my mom I can never complain about things because I’m very fortunate to have the things that I have. It was really a life-changing experience for me,” reflected Walker.

Over the years, Basketball Without Borders has brought valuable exposure and assistance to numerous players on the African continent, helping build bridges to better lives for invitees and their families. Many come from areas with limited everyday resources, including food, clean water, clothing, shelter and education. Today, over 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa lives in absolute poverty, meaning close to half of the combined population in this area earns less than $1.25 per day.

In November 2015, 75 percent of the world’s poorest countries were located in sub-Saharan Africa. The 10 countries on Earth with the highest percentages of residents living in extreme poverty are also all part of this aforementioned region. Last year, Africa accounted for the world’s 16 poorest qualified countries based on gross domestic product per capita (GDP) according to Global Finance Magazine.

One in three people living in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished and 37 percent of those without access to clean water in the world also reside in this region. The extreme conditions have contributed to widespread disease on the continent including water-related illnesses (present in more than 50 percent of the total population), AIDS (Africa accounts for close to 70 percent of the global population living with HIV) and malaria (Africa accounts for 90 percent of the 1 million worldwide deaths every year).

In the last few decades, many African countries have also dealt with internal governmental conflicts, corruption and civil wars, further contributing to their citizens’ basic-living instabilities. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 18 million sub-Saharan Africans are of concern to the organization because of violence and human rights abuses. Building stable governments is imperative to helping curb impoverished situations, but it’s unfortunately an ongoing, often times bloody, process that can take generations to ultimately achieve.

Through all its challenges though, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Africa is also home to some of the most beautiful, exquisite wonders of the natural world. The picturesque view from atop Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa, the exotic wildlife inhabiting the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and the roaring waters of Victoria Falls at the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe are just a few of the magnificent marvels the continent has to offer.

While the NBA is the ultimate goal for many young basketball players around the world, playing professionally or for their respective national teams can still be a life-changing development for many, particularly those hailing from African countries. Basketball Without Borders has certainly assisted in helping many of these players turn those dreams into realities.

Hornets shooting guard Nicolas Batum participated in the inaugural NBA Africa Game in 2015, suiting up for the home team because of his father’s Cameroonian heritage. An alum of Basketball Without Borders Europe 2005 as well, Batum considers his involvement in the first NBA game ever played in Africa as one of the highlights of his basketball career.

“That was huge. That was amazing. A great experience to be one of the first people to play a NBA game in Africa. That’s history. To be part of that, that was huge and to be an African, I was really proud about it,” said Batum during an interview last year.

“We knew before in the locker room like ‘Guys, we’re going to make history.’ That’s pretty cool when you do something unique for the first time you’re doing that. My people in Cameroon watched the game and all the guys [on the] African team knew it was something special. We knew we did something special for the continent and we’re really proud about it.”

Despite both being around 50 years old at the time, Hall-of-Famers Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Dikembe Mutombo didn’t pass on the chance to play a few minutes in the first NBA Africa Game in 2015. For foreign-born players like Batum, this pair of basketball giants towered over the sport far more than just on the court.

“It was cool that Hakeem and Dikembe played with us a little bit, because with [late Sudanese NBA player] Manute Bol, those were the guys that opened the door for Africans. Of course [I looked up to them]. They were an example for us because to come from Africa all the way to the NBA, that wasn’t easy, especially back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. That was more impressive because now it’s different.”

The Frenchman added, “The door is more open. The NBA opened its door to the world, so we have a ton of international people playing in the NBA. That’s different, but back in the day, it was for sure difficult, especially from Africa.”

Mangok Mathiang, a rookie from Louisville who recently signed a two-way contract with the Charlotte Hornets, is also originally from the continent. Mathiang, along with his mother, Grace, and four siblings, fled war-torn Sudan when he was five, spending two years as refugees in Egypt before settling in Australia. At age 17, Mathiang moved to the United States by himself to continue his basketball career.

Shortly after signing his contract on the morning of Wednesday, August 2, Mathiang provided a first-hand account on the importance of the NBA Africa Game.

“Growing up, just telling everybody I’m from Africa, the first thing they think about is bare feet and living in huts and everything,” said a smiling Mathiang. “For the [NBA] to have an event like this is huge for the continent of Africa. [It shows] everybody else that Africa is a beautiful place. Just like every other place, there are some bad [parts] that you don’t want to go to, but there’s always a beautiful place within a bad place. It’s huge for us and everybody of African descent and it’s just the beginning.”

Mathiang’s two-way contract allows him to spend a maximum of 45 days on the Hornets roster this season. If or when he makes his league debut, he’d become just the fifth Sudanese-born player to ever appear in a regular season NBA game. Manute Bol, Luol Deng, Deng Gai (Luol Deng’s cousin who appeared in two games with the Philadelphia 76ers in 2005-06) and second-year Milwaukee Buck, Thon Maker, are currently the only other players from Mathiang’s homeland to accomplish this feat.

Walker also mentioned that this trip has not only inspired him to travel more during the offseason, but to also help others in different places around the world while doing so.

“For me, [going to Africa] was really just trying to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. I’m not a big traveler. I think now that I was able to make this trip to Africa, it opened my eyes to wanting to travel more. I think now my summers will consistent of more traveling all over the world. I’m excited to make this trip because of that reason.”

He added, “I would love to do more. I’m looking forward to going on a lot more trips with the league because they do such a great job of getting us out there and providing us with opportunities to take trips like this to Africa. These are bucket-list kind of trips. I’m excited to work with more countries in the future.” 

Walker’s stay in Johannesburg might last roughly a week or so, but there’s really no telling how long or far his involvement there could stretch in terms of assisting young players from all over the world’s second-biggest continent. To many, it might seem as though the NBA Africa Game is just another in a long line of outstanding, prestigious humanitarian efforts put forth by the league and FIBA. For countless others on the receiving end though, the support provided in Johannesburg could ultimately serve as a life-altering source of inspiration and change.

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