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From Olajuwon to Embiid How Africa’s relationship with American hoops has evolved

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Sports Africa Network recently hosted a roundtable with five basketball players from the African continent. The discussion revealed the tremendous potential the sport has for enhancing mutual understanding between Africa and the USA, while highlighting the challenges remaining.

Thirteen Africa-born men play in the NBA today, nearly enough to fill a team roster. That roster would include Cameroon stars Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam. Both men command impressive contracts and substantial social media followings.

The growing African presence in the NBA, WNBA, and in the NCAA for that matter, attests to an evolving relationship between basketball on the African continent and in the country where it was invented.

The first African-born player to join the NBA was Hakeem Olajuwon in 1983. Eleven years later, he won an NBA championship and was named Finals MVP with the Rockets. Yet players on both sides of the Atlantic at times displayed a lack of awareness of one another.

In the case of Manute Bol, it was an innocence about a game that was decidedly foreign to him: “The first time I tried to dunk, I caught my teeth in the net and lost a couple of teeth.”

For Charles Barkley, it was more a case of ignorance, or perhaps bombast. During the near mythic Dream Team run in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Barkley remarked on his tussles with an Angolan player, “Somebody hits me, I’m going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a couple weeks. I thought he was going to pull a spear on me.”

Comments of this sort have largely disappeared. We seem to have moved beyond the cartoonish plots of movies like “The Air Up There.” Yet the media still seem to favor narratives of young Africans escaping famine and warlords to chart the success of African basketball players in the United States.

Invariably, the basketball ingenues are “discovered” by the American coach, but this storyline often neglects the positive attributes of African culture that produce a resilient, talented young athlete.

And it was only six years ago that Danny Ferry said about fellow former Duke Blue Devil Luol Deng, “He’s a good guy on the cover, but he’s an African. He has a little two step in him, says what you like to hear, but behind closed doors he could be killing you.”

This is why it is encouraging to hear the words of Anicet Lavodrama of the Central African Republic, a former center for Houston Baptist University in the 1980s who was drafted by the LA Clippers in 1985.

Lavodrama, during the roundtable, argued that many Americans learn about Africa through players like Olajuwon, Hall of Fame inductee Dikembe Mutombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and others. African NBA stars may possess special appeal for Black Americans, Lavodrama suggests.

Through the lives of these globetrotting athletes, they may “learn about their origins” and “mentally travel to Congo, Senegal and Cameroon.”

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2:31

Anicet Lavodrama explains why NBA players like Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam are so important for Africa.

Sports historian Lindsay Krasnoff also related during the roundtable that the NBA’s investment in the new Basketball Africa League has forced Americans to look at Africa through a different lens, leaving many now “wanting to learn more.”

“Basketball is a luxury”

According to players from Africa, basketball on the continent remains a sport beyond the financial means of most families. Former WNBA player and member of the Senegales sports Hall of Fame Astou Ndiaye describes basketball in Africa as a luxury sport.

French-Beninois basketball player Isabelle Yacoubou, an Olympic silver medalist with France, lamented that most African families cannot afford sneakers and a ball for their child to play basketball.

In this respect, basketball in Africa resembles youth soccer in the United States, which, to many, remains the purview of suburban families with the means to pay for year-round travel teams.

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Astou Ndiaye speaks to why basketball shoes are a luxury that no player should take for granted.

In contrast to soccer in the United States, in Africa football often starts in fallow fields, features on ocean shores and punctuates pockets of undeveloped urban space, with barefoot play common. In Ghana, informal urban football is referred to as “gutter to gutter.”

And while basketball is played by youths of all means and backgrounds in the United States, in Africa, basketball is only accessible for those who can find a pair of sneakers and a basketball, and, perhaps more challenging, a flat terrain with a reliable rim.

African cities very rarely have decent outdoor courts, and indoor courts are next to non-existent outside of educational institutions.

Basketball and education go hand in hand

In Africa, education and basketball are entwined due in part to the sport being introduced by colonial schools and missionaries. For a basketball player in Africa to compete into their late teens and early twenties, they are essentially obliged to continue their academic studies, according to former LA Clipper and current Senegal coach Boniface N’Dong.

African athletes who move to the United States to play basketball usually do so at an academic institution, whereas those who aim to play football in European leagues typically forgo further education.

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Boniface Ndong explains how African governments would benefit economically from investing in youth sports.

Here again, as Krasnoff points out, football and basketball on the continent contrast. Basketball is viewed as an educational endeavor, much more so than football. Moreover, while football is still king, basketball is considered cutting edge and a forward-looking sport.

Social activism could bring American basketball and the continent closer

The killing of George Floyd while in police custody in May roiled cities and towns across the United States. Black Lives Matter protests that swept through the streets also drew high-profile players.

Among professional athletes joining the fight for social justice, NBA and WNBA players have been some of the most outspoken, illustrated strongly during the recently concluded season that took place in a ‘bubble’ in Orlando.

Some, like LeBron James, lobbied on social media, others, like Portland Trailblazers star Damian Lillard, marched in lockstep with protestors.

Basketball activism, predicated on a common demand for anti-racist action, could lead to further convergence and mutual respect between Africans and Americans.

While other sports leagues and their players seem to be playing catch-up to the Black Lives Matter movement, the NBA has been at the vanguard for decades. Mahmoud Abdul Rauf of the Denver Nuggets, for instance, refused to stand for the national anthem nearly 25 years ago.

Lebron was told to shut up and dribble over two years ago. This level of social engagement will surely resonate on the continent as tangible signs emerge that Africans watched the George Floyd protests and now demonstrate against police abuses in their own countries.

It could echo cross-Atlantic solidarity that occurred during the anti-apartheid movement and Black nationalism expressed during the 1968 Mexico Olympics.

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Former Senegal and WNBA player Astou Ndiaye explains how she aims to be a role model for children.

Contributors from Sports Africa Network – @sportsinafrica

Matthew Kirwin – US Department of State and Professorial Lecturer at George Washington University

Michelle Sikes – Assistant Professor of Kinesiology, African Studies, and History at Pennsylvania State University

Gerard Akindes – Sports management consultant based at the Josoor Institute in Qatar, former pro basketball player and coach



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NBA free agents – Team-by-team lists for 2021 and 2022

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Who are the NBA free agents to watch in 2021 and 2022? The 2020 free-agent class featured less star power than normal, as the league blitzed through a condensed transaction period featuring the draft and free agency in the same week.

The 2021 class has more hype, potentially featuring names such as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan, Blake Griffin, Rudy Gobert and Andre Drummond. Some of those players will agree to extensions or pick up player options before ever hitting the market, while others will have plenty of suitors.

Here’s our team-by-team look at all the players who can and will hit free agency over the next two seasons.

Key: Restricted = Restricted free agent; Player = Player option; Team = Team option; ETO = Early termination option

MORE: 2021 NBA offseason preview


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Charlotte Hornets complete sign-and-trade with Boston Celtics to acquire Gordon Hayward

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The Boston Celtics have traded Gordon Hayward and second-round draft picks in 2023 and 2024 to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for a conditional 2022 second-round draft pick.

The sign-and-trade agreement creates a $27.9 million trade exception for the Celtics, the largest in NBA history.

Hayward, 30, declined his $34.2 million player option with Boston earlier this month, ending a tumultuous three-year run with the team, then agreed to a four-year, $120 million deal with the Hornets.

“We are thrilled to welcome Gordon and his family to the Hornets organization and Charlotte,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement. “Gordon is an NBA All-Star, a proven scorer and playmaker and a tough competitor that will fit well into the needs of our team. We believe that his basketball talent, NBA experience and veteran leadership will make a positive impact on our young, talented team as it continues to develop.”

To help make room for Hayward’s salary, Charlotte waived Nicolas Batum. The final year of his deal will be stretched over the next three seasons as a yearly $9 million dead cap hit.

ESPN’s Bobby Marks contributed to this report.

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NBA says Kobe Bryant’s delayed Hall of Fame induction coming in May 2021

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SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett will finally enter the Basketball Hall of Fame in May 2021.

The NBA said Saturday that the delayed Hall of Fame weekend — it was to have taken place in Springfield, Massachusetts, in August before being pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic — will be held May 13-15.

Bryant, Duncan and Garnett — with a combined 48 All-Star Game selections and 11 NBA championships between them — were the headliners of the class that was announced in April. They all got into the Hall in their first year as finalists, as did WNBA great Tamika Catchings.

Others had to wait a bit longer for the Hall’s call: Two-time NBA champion coach Rudy Tomjanovich got in this year, as did longtime Baylor women’s coach Kim Mulkey, 1,000-game winner Barbara Stevens of Bentley and three-time Final Four coach Eddie Sutton.

Bryant died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, along with daughter Gianna and seven others. Sutton died May 23.

Also going in as part of this class is former FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann, who was chosen by the international committee. Baumann died in October 2018.

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