When Utah jazz center Udoka Azubuike arrived at the Basketball Without Borders Africa camp held in Cairo, Egypt in late August, the importance of his presence there was not initially apparent to him.
Sure, it was his first time back on the African continent since he emigrated from Nigeria to the United States about 10 years ago, but it didn’t put him in an overly sentimental mood.
He once saw the more than 60 children under the age of 18 from 26 African countries gathered, however…
“It didn’t really hit me until we started camp. Just seeing the kids, seeing them training and working hard, just seeing the joy on their faces,” Azubuike told the Salt Lake Tribune in a Zoom interview from Cairo. “These children don’t have much, but they are very grateful, they are delighted with this opportunity. … They try to learn and improve. It just puts things into perspective.
As the 22-year-old 7-footer got to know some of the kids he was there to teach basketball and life skills to, he couldn’t help but find out about some of their stories and tell them. compare to his.
This aforementioned “perspective” was widely available.
“Some of these kids don’t have a basketball hall, like we have in the United States, where they can go every day and work hard and get better at their game. Some of them have to go to a another country or an academy just to find a place to play basketball,” Azubuike said. “For me growing up, it was the same thing. I had to walk 40 minutes just to get to a basketball court outside to shoot hoops in. Some of these kids don’t have that luxury where they can just go to the gym, lift weights and stuff.
This, he explained, made what he saw all the more impressive.
Realizing the obstacles they face to improve their fledgling basketball games, recognizing the limitations they have in terms of access to facilities, equipment, instruction…
This made him obsessed with the idea of how many more Africans there might one day be in the NBA if these circumstances were to change.
“You see the potential – you see the potential of what they can do. Some of the kids are really good,” Azubuike said. “And then you start thinking: what if they had all of this in place for them? What if they had a gym? What if they had a weight room? If they have all of this in place, what is their potential? These kids have talent. »
That, more than anything, is the goal of Basketball Without Borders, which operates under a joint agreement between the NBA and FIBA to serve as a global basketball development and community outreach program. .
It all started in 2001, when Serbian Vlade Divac and Croatian Tony Kukoc reunited with former Yugoslavia national team mates in Treviso, Italy to work with 50 children from the former Yugoslavia. The first Basketball Borders Africa camp was held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2003.
A total of 66 BWB camps were held in 41 cities in 31 countries on six continents. More than 310 current and former NBA and WNBA players, as well as more than 240 NBA team personnel, participated in the instruction of some 3,800 participants from 133 countries and territories.
The reward ?
There were a record 121 international players from 40 countries on the NBA’s opening night rosters for the 2021-22 season. And there have been 105 former campers either drafted into the NBA and WNBA or signed as free agents — and 41 of them were on season-opening rosters 21-22.
Former BWB campers who later paid off in the NBA include notable names such as Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Deandre Ayton, Jonas Valanciunas, Nicolas Batum, Danilo Gallinari, RJ Barrett, Josh Giddey, Rui Hachimura… and new Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen.
Azubuike’s five-day experience marked the 18th BWB Africa camp – and the first to take place outside of South Africa, Senegal or Angola.
More than 1,400 boys and girls and men and women from more than 30 African countries have participated in BWB Africa, and 12 former BWB Africa campers have been recruited into the NBA (Embiid, Siakam, Gorgui Dieng, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Luc Mbah a Moute, 2022 recruits Christian Koloko and Khalifa Diop, as well as Mouhamed Saer Sene, Solomon Alabi, Hamady N’diaye, Christian Eyenga and Chukwudi Maduabum).
Azubuike, meanwhile, was one of the record five Nigerian players and the record 14 African players on the opening night rosters of the NBA 21-22 season. There were also 30 additional players with at least one parent from an African country.
Considering all of this, he noted that his purpose in being at camp was quite simple.
“Just to help the kids,” he said.
He focused on trying to teach small details and fundamentals such as footwork, screens and rolls, passing with right and left hands and finishing to the basket.
The language barrier was sometimes problematic. Some campers do not speak English. Some tried to converse with Azubuike in French, only to find that the language was just as foreign to him. Most of the time, he said, he just tried to demonstrate each action or exercise several times, and came away pleased with how quickly they seemed to figure out what he meant and get to work.
He was also happy to see how excited they were to learn and interact with a large NBA contingent.
Other attendees at the Hassan Mostafa Indoor Sports Complex featured players Mo Bamba (Magic), Malcolm Brogdon (Celtics) and Grant Williams (Celtics); head coaches Steve Kerr (Warriors), Chauncey Billups (Blazers), Willie Green (Pelicans), Wes Unseld Jr. (Wizards) and Chris Finch (Wolves); as well as various other NBA front office executives (including Raptors President Masai Ujiri), assistant coaches, scouts, coaches, and Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo.
“They’re watching us, they want to be where we are, they want to play college someday or go to the NBA, make a better life for themselves,” Azubuike said, “so they’re watching every move we make.”
And, in the future, he will watch over them, eager to see what moves they make too.