NEW YORK CITY —
When physician James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, he had no idea the international impact it would have.
The sport has come a long way since the days when people would throw a ball into a bottomless peach basket. Today, basketball is a worldwide sport; some of the greatest players in the world play on college and professional teams in the United States.
Brooklyn's Long Island University, for example, boasts one player from the Netherlands, one from Iceland — and three from Africa.
The LIU-Brooklyn team is nicknamed "The Blackbirds," and back in the 1930s and 1940s, LIU was a national powerhouse.
Today, the team plays in the Northeast Conference, which is part of Division I, the top division for collegiate athletics in America. Twenty-one foreign-born players are part of that conference.
Coach Jack Perri, who has led the Blackbirds for four years, said LIU does not go out of its way to give basketball scholarships to foreign students.
“We don't really kind of pigeonhole ourselves in one area where we've got to just take New York kids and New Jersey kids,” he said. “It's more about who fits our program. … What kind of kids are going to fit into the culture that we want here at LIU Brooklyn and all five of those kids playing for me now are wonderful kids. They're low maintenance, they care about being good student athletes, they fit into what we want to do on the basketball court and so it's just kind of worked out that way."
‘Lucky enough to get a chance’
The three African student athletes are serious not only about the game, but about the paid-for scholarships that entitle them to an education.
Twenty-year-old Nura Zanna is from Nigeria. He is a sophomore and plays power forward on the team. His goal is to play in the National Basketball Association, the number one professional basketball league in the world.
But Zanna realizes there is more to basketball than just playing the game.
"I'm looking forward,” he said. "Hopefully, if I can get a job in the NBA International department. So, you know, we can help basketball more global, you know, in Africa."
Glenn Feidanga , 21, of the Central African Republic is one of Zanna's teammates. Feidanga got into LIU after being chosen for a basketball camp in Africa and then being invited to play at a high school in Florida.
"It's a great feeling for myself," he said of being in America, "because what I have is what a lot of kids in Africa don't have. Like a lot of kids in Africa, they're dreaming to come here. But they're not lucky enough to get a chance to come."
Ganlandou Cisse, 18, of Senegal is the third African member of the Blackbirds.
“I left home when I was 15," he said. “So, it's really different. When I was there [home], like my mom would take care of me a lot, like, make sure I would go to school and make sure I do my work every time.
"College, it's like a lot of new things. Like, you have to manage your time, your school, your work, basketball court. I mean it's a lot of work," he added.
The other two foreign-born players are Martin Hermannson, a sophomore guard from Iceland, and currently injured Julius van Sauers from Amsterdam, Holland.
On track for success
A key to a strong team hinges on Perri doing his homework when looking for recruits.
"Information gathering is a huge part of the recruiting process,” he said. “When we gather information, obviously, you want to get a kid that's athletic, that has potential on the basketball court. But we also look at other things: how they handle adversity, are they constantly whining and complaining and making excuses, that kind of stuff on the court, how do they handle situations with their parents, their teachers, things like that. And how are they in the classroom."
Perri's LIU Blackbirds have appeared in the National NCAA Division I national tournament six times. They have been champions of their Northeast Conference in three of the last five years.
It is partly the attitude that these young men bring to LIU, Perri says, that puts the team on track to achieve some of the glory it has enjoyed in its past.