From Olajuwon to Embiid: How Africa’s relationship with American hoops has evolvedon October 19, 2020 at 1:27 pm

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.”


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.


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.


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.


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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