Sunday, May 17, 2009

African basketball players in the NBA - past, present and future

One day in 2001, I woke up and realised I was pretty tall. When I came to the NBA USA, people will look at me and ask if I played basketball. I guess tall black boys were supposed to be basketball players if they lived in Syracuse, New York. Like I was telling a high school friend earlier today, the 'gaso' the caterers fed us in Presec did me some good. Either that or I was meant to shoot a number of inches in my teenage years. Anyway, I've been a huge fan of the NBA since I started schooling in the US. I never played basketball growing up and haven't been able to pick it up since. I can't shoot, dribble or dunk. I can play some inspired Kobe-like defense for a couple of possessions but even that will be mistaken for Bruce Bowen scissorhands work. I have made a momentum-swinging shot in an intramural game though. Wink wink. "Not all of us can play bball". Not all of us can play bball. Some other Africans have proved they can though, and they made to the NBA. We'll look at a few of them in this post and wonder aloud why there haven't been more.

Most of the top African players in the history of the NBA have been big men. Hakeem 'The Dream' Olajuwon. Uncle Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo. Emeka Okafor. (Not the Timbuktu Chronicles guy but the-former-3.8-GPA-finished-college-in-3-years UConn Huskie). The first two are surefire hall of famers but we haven't had any great African guards. Angola is Africa's top basketball country and none of their players have made it to the NBA. Something has to be done. More Africans should take basketball more seriously. If we can do 'suuliyas' and 'nutmegs', we should be able to crossover our way into the basketball leagues.

I like to support the African players in the NBA. I loved the San Antonio Spurs a little bit more when they were starting Nazr Mohammed, who is a Ghanaian. You didn't know? Now you know. Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who I met at a Ghanaian picnic in 2005, is the torchbearer for Ghana at the moment, trying to break into the Toronto Raptors squad. He'll have a GH crowd following him to Raptors' games in the T-Dot. And British ones too. Whatever happened to all the great Ghanaian ballers? When I got interested in the NBA, I started looking for all the Presec ballers I'd seen play in Accra. C'mon GH, we can do this. Where's that guy in the Coca-Cola Brrrr commercial? Is he playing basketball in Turkeminstan? (yes, it is a country)

Sudan's Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls is probably the best African player now. If he stays consistent and the Bulls have an excellent record, he could be an All-star. England may claim him but he's Sudanese through and through. He's a pretty good small forward. When Kobe-to-Chicago trade rumours were at its height, Kobe claimed he will not play for the Bulls if Deng was traded for him. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. I hope Luol Deng summons some heavenly powers and becomes Chicago's next Michael Jordan. Luol, yes, you can. Manute Bol is on record as the NBA's tallest player ever, listed at 7-7. He is more known for the people who dunked on him. Yawa. But Thank God for Yao Ming. If you didn't know, there are a bunch of Ghanaians called 'Yao'.

There are a bunch of Nigerians in the NBA too. Emeka Okafor was the second overall draft pick after a great college career but he has been outshone by Dwight Howard and his buddy Ben Gordon. His stats have been okay but he never matured into the All-Star we hoped he would be. He should be able to be the Charlotte Bobcats best player. Kelenna Azubuike may be the pick here, he's a small forward for the Golden State Warriors and has had some 30 point games. I though Ime Udoka was the next Bruce Bowen when he landed in San Antonio, but he has been inconsistent. There's also Ike Diogu who may be with the Indiana Pacers. Who remembers Michael Olowokandi? Can you believe he was the first overall draft pick? Shyous.

Senegal is probably the best African basketball country after Angola. Desagana Diop was a top 8 draft pick and he's played great defense everywhere he's played. He can't shoot a free-throw to save his life though. He's now with the Charlotte Bobcats. Must be really nice to hang with Emeka Okafor and Michael Jordan. Mohammed Sene and Pape Sow are just there for the numbers. Well done, Senegal. Many African players are great defenders. Maybe it's the same reason why there are a bunch of world-class African defensive midfielders today? Thabo Sefolosha (who claims Switzerland) from South Africa is playing good defense for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Didier Ilunga-Mbenga aka DJ Mbenga is a bench warmer for the Los Angeles Lakers. He'll probably wave towels all the way to an NBA championship ring this year. That will be one more than his countryman Mutombo has. Dikembe Mutombo had been finger-wagging in the NBA for several years before he got injured this postseason (playing for the Houston Rockets) and retired. What a terrible way to go out. He's known as one of the best teammates in the history of the NBA. He was a four-time defensive player of the year. He may have an interesting voice but he's well-respected in all circles. He's built a world class hospital in DR Congo and is celebrated for his humanitarian efforts.

Hakeem Olajuwon is the best African player ever. To think he didn't even take up basketball until he came to the US. He's a two-time NBA champ and Finals MVP (1994 and 1995) for the Houston Rockets. He's the all-time leading shot-blocker in the NBA and considered one of the top 5 centers ever. He was an offensive juggernaut as well, with an array of moves in different classes. He could jiver on the court. :-P His game was beautiful to watch. He has left a void that has never really been filled. Hasheem Thabeet will be the first Tanzanian (or East African for that matter) to play in the NBA. My good friend knows him so maybe I'll hook up an interview with him soon. He was a dominant defensive player (uh huh) for UConn and figures to be that in the NBA too. I hope he learns a couple of moves to boost his offense. How about an African Rookie of the year and future All-star? We can do it. I mean, we are black too. Go figure.

I want to see more African ballers in the NBA. Angola must begin to represent us well in the Olympics too. Some of their guys should get into the NBA. The Kelennas and Olowokandis should play for Naija. Kai, even Barack Obama is better than many African ballers. I know there are many prospects out there. I implore them to work hard and make us proud. Some of that African electronics should work. If you know of any prospects, let us know and if I forgot some players, do remind us as well. Of to watch highlights of the playoffs because I love this game.
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