Sitting near Amadou was our other host, Denver Nuggets general manager and Nigerian native Masai Ujiri. Having arrived a day before us, Masai seemed to have recovered from his jet lag and looked like a kid in a candy store. I’ve gotten to know Masai since he took the GM job in Denver a year ago, but at games I’m used to seeing him standing in the Pepsi Center, arms folded with a serious look on his face … as if every Nuggets possession represents a carefully thought out chess move for him. Here in Tana, I’m seeing a different side of Masai. Elated from watching his countrymen defeat the Central African Republic earlier in the day, Masai is all smiles and enthusiastically explains to Marc and I everything we need to know about African basketball: the players (virtually all of whom played or play in the NCAA and professionally in Africa), the coaches, the federations, the history and so on. There are no better ambassadors to Africa for the NBA — and the overall sport of basketball in Africa for that matter — than Amadou and Masai, both of whom are tall in stature but have hearts bigger than their physical frames. Both were damn good players in their youth — Amadou played for Senegal, Masai for Nigeria — but neither were good enough to make it to the NBA. Like most African players, Amadou and Masai may have had the physical gifts to someday become NBA players, but they started playing the game too late.
To foster an interest in basketball early in kids’ lives and get Africa’s best young players the coaching they desperately need, Amadou and Masai run camps all over the continent, culminating with their signature Basketball Without Borders camp, taking place this Thursday in Johannesburg. The eighth time BWB has been hosted in Johannesburg, next week’s camp will feature 60 campers between 18-24 years old meeting NBA legends like Mutombo, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning while getting coached by current NBA coaches and executives. Seeing the African teams up close in the FIBA Afrobasket quarterfinals, I share Amadou and Masai’s vision for getting more African players onto the world’s grandest basketball stage. The raw talent is here and I saw some splendid basketball.