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The Africans Are Coming! - 2003-12-04

A few nights ago my son and I went to a basketball game together. But it was not just any old game. He had got his hands on some rare tickets to a Duke game in Durham, North Carolina.

Even though I'd go to any ballgame just to be with my son (what father wouldn't), I had an extra interest in attending this particular game. Always on the lookout for the African connection, I had heard that Duke's Hall of Fame coach, Mike Krzyzewski, was particularly enthralled at the potential of his Sudanese-born guard/forward swingman, Luol Deng.

Deng came to Duke with a huge reputation. But hype is one thing and actual performance is another. However, to put it mildly, I was not disappointed. And neither was the near capacity crowd which crammed into Cameron Indoor Stadium along with the Maughans.

In between soft drinks and popcorn, it soon became crystal clear that Deng was the real deal. Sure he can score. But it's his overall court presence, silky smoothness and knowledge that makes him so watchable. And he's only a first year player!

It might have been a long and winding road to Duke University for Deng. But his previous basketball credentials certainly helped pave the way.

Last year, Deng was listed among the top prep players in the United States. Deng was also named to the 2003 McDonald's All-America team along with a whole list of other awards too numerous to list here.

Deng came to the United States with his basketball skills already considerably honed. At the age of thirteen, the London-based Deng was invited to represent England in its fifteen and under national teams in both basketball and football. Deciding to concentrate on basketball, Deng played for England in the 1998 Junior Men's Qualifying Tournament in Portugal, averaging forty points and fourteen rebounds per game to earn the tournament's Most Valuable Player award.

Deng's family lives in both England and the United States. His father, Aldo, is currently studying law in London after he, his wife, Martha, and nine children were granted political asylum.

Deng's father actually served in the Sudanese parliament and in the cabinet before first moving to Egypt to escape being caught up in Sudan's on-going civil war.

Luol Deng is not the only one in his family playing basketball. An older brother plays professionally in England while another brother played for a smaller American college. Currently, one of Deng's five sisters plays for Delaware.

But, as exciting as he is, Deng represents only one of a growing list of top African collegiate basketballers in the United States.

Another player with a top pedigree is forward and shot blocker extraordinaire Emeka Okafor of Nigerian parentage who is expected to lead Connecticut to another national championship. In fact, Okafor begins the current U.S. collegiate season as the odds on favorite to win the Naismith Player of the Year award.

The list of top-flight African players currently starring for Division One Colleges and Universities in the United States grows longer year-by-year. Ever on the scour for players, American coaches are paying far more attention to Africa and the continent's growing talent base.

As was the case with Deng, American coaches, through their agents and contacts, are at this very moment carrying out a systematic search for the best basketballers Africa has to offer. And, if my reports are accurate, that search is going exceedingly well with more Hakeem Olajuwons, Manute Bols and Dikembe Mutombos just waiting in the wings for their turn at stardom.

If the allure of African players is captivating all ranks of American colleges and universities it stands to reason that the same holds true for the professional league, the National Basketball Association or NBA.

Called the Africa One Hundred Camp, this NBA-sponsored clinic marks only the latest organized attempt to harness Africa's vast potential.

In order to better facilitate this flow of seemingly endless talent the NBA is accelerating its long-time campaign to improve coaching and physical facilities and equipment throughout the continent.

I recall covering one of the first NBA attempts to begin tapping this seemingly endless pool of talent. At that time, top former stars and future Hall of Famers, Wesley Unseld and Bob Lanier, headlined a team of coaches and instructors conducting clinics and training sessions in South Africa and elsewhere on the continent.

That first successful foray into Africa has continued down through the years with different personnel but with the same goal and intent.

These latest participants were assembled in Johannesburg by the NBA, with a giant assist by South African Airways. The five-day camp not only stressed on-court fundamentals but there was also a heavy concentration on coaching philosophy and theory.

The coaches came away quite impressed, with most predicting that many of the assembled players, with continued maturation and honing of existing skills, could be successful at the collegiate level. And a couple went as far as to say that a very select few of them could eventually enjoy an NBA career if they were fortunate to be recruited by a top collegiate coach employing the right system.

But for most of the participants making a living playing basketball professionally is not their primary goal. They see getting a college degree as being far more important.

Most have seen grinding poverty up close and very personal. So anything that will help guarantee a better, more prosperous, life for themselves and their families would be reward enough for all their hard work on and off the court.

Duke's Luol Deng and Emeka Okafor of the University of Connecticut stand an excellent chance of eventually raking in the big bucks with some professional team.

But lady luck has to continue smiling on them. A serious injury could kill that dream. So could bad advice on when to become eligible for the NBA draft. And, let's face it, both still have lots of improvement to make in their game before reaching professional caliber. But the experts agree that they both have an excellent change of going all the way to the top.

But even if that ultimate goal eludes them, like most of their African counterparts playing college ball in the United States, the game will at least have afforded them an education. And with that education will come greater economic prosperity for themselves and their families.

And, when all is said and done, shouldn't that be what collegiate sports is all about?