WASHINGTON - More than ever, professional basketball in the U.S. is becoming a global game. Last season, the National Basketball Association had 113 international players from 41 countries and territories. All in all, a quarter of NBA players are international.

The Washington Wizards alone have players from Poland and the Czech Republic, in addition to two players with roots in Africa, having parents born on the continent.

Ian Mahinmi, a 2.11 meter center from Rouen, France, represents this diversity. His mother is from Jamaica, and his father is from the West African nation of Benin.

Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi (28) during
Washington Wizards center Ian Mahinmi (28) during an NBA basketball media day, Sept. 25, 2017, in Washington.

Mahinmi told VOA he grew up wanting to play soccer and idolizing the French-Senegalese midfielder, Patrick Vieira. But as he kept growing he realized his future was on the hardwood.

“I really wanted to be a soccer player, and then I grew so tall and then eventually I gave a shot to basketball and then fell in love with it and then next thing you know I am here,” he said.

As he enters his 10th season in the NBA, Mahinmi sees that the game is growing. “Now it’s not only soccer. Basketball definitely took a big part in people’s heart. I feel like there is more and more young folks that grow up to be basketball players. There is more and more African players in the NBA, so it’s been a big growth since I got in the league,” he said.

Africa academy

The NBA now holds an annual exhibition game in Africa and has opened a youth academy in Senegal. Mahinmi too is doing his part. Last summer he traveled to Benin and held a three-day camp where he taught basketball fundamentals to 55 young players.

“It was unreal,” he said. “The love that they showed me and the welcoming from the minute we got out [of] the plane until the last minute was tremendous. You know, it was probably the trip of the summer for me, my dad, probably the trip [of] our lives. So, you know, it’s something we want to do every summer.”

Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks during
Washington Wizards head coach Scott Brooks during an NBA basketball media day, Sept. 25, 2017, in Washington.

Wizards Head Coach Scott Brooks says that, as the NBA looks to expand globally, Africa is a big part of its future. “I think it is so important to continue to build our brand as NBA and I think Africa is definitely something that we’ve been considering for a long time and [NBA Commissioner] Adam Silver and the NBA office has done a great job of making basketball worldwide, global and Africa is a big part of that,” he told VOA.

Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (7) dunks over
Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown (7) dunks over Washington Wizards guard Bojan Bogdanovic during the fourth quarter of Game 7 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, May 15, 2017, in Boston.

For now, the Wizards’ attention is squarely on the upcoming NBA season, which tips off on October 18. Last year, they won 49 games and nearly reached the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, they’re hoping to improve.

“From one year to the next, you want to get better,” Mahinmi said. “You know, you want to come back better [and] sharper and have a better season, period. We feel like we are very strong as far as our continuity, you know. We have a lot of people back from last year. The coaching staff is back. We have new guys on the team that are upgrades, so I really feel like we are ready for the challenge, and it’s going to be an exciting time.”