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In Africa, players hope basketball will lead to a better life

Hoop dreams

Posted: Wednesday, September 10, 2003

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa Near the squalor of Diepsloot squatter camp, basketball players dream of rim-rattling dunks and clutch 3-pointers that just might get them out of Africa.

''In my country, war has hurt us very much. Many people suffer because we don't have money,'' said 19-year-old Emanuel Maciel de Silva Neto. ''I want to use basketball to leave Angola and help my brothers and sisters go to school in Europe or the United States.''

Similar dreams endure for 100 players who headed home this week after four days of drills, scrimmages and lessons about leadership from NBA players and coaches at the first basketball camp for prospects from across Africa. For these young men, many growing up where neighborhood courts and good coaching are rare, making it to the NBA will be a long haul against steep odds.

They don't know the gritty game played in American playgrounds or the country's basketball culture. But they know some make it. Like Dikembe Mutombo, the seven-time All-Star center with the New Jersey Nets.

He left Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, on an academic scholarship and ended up playing for coach John Thompson at Georgetown. The Denver Nuggets took him in the first round of the 1991 draft, the fourth pick overall.

''Not everyone can be as lucky as I have been,'' said Mutombo, one of five NBA players sharing their skills with the Africans. ''I wouldn't be where I am today without the help of a lot of people. Maybe I can help some of these guys get that lucky chance.''

NBA scouts and agents scribbled notes about the players, who range from 15 to 20 years old. They described the talent as raw. When asked to list 40 players for an all-star game, one scout muttered he didn't know if he could name five. Still, they watched the players dribble, rebound, block out and shoot.

Does big-time talent lie under those rough edges?

Maybe it is Algerian Hamma Walid, a 5-foot-11 guard whose laser passes threaded through flailing arms and thumping bodies.

Maybe it is 6-4 Michel Chico Los Santos, a 17-year-old player who hit six 3-pointers in the all-star game.

''I want to go to college and then I want money and fame,'' he said.

Or maybe it is a Nigerian center who took up the game just three months ago. When asked to describe his strengths, Kenechukwu Obi, 15, rolled his eyes upward. Perhaps he was picturing the jumper he banked in after pivoting around a defender, or the shot he blocked into an opponent's face. But there were also times three times within a short span when teammates fed him the ball but he grasped only air.

''I have to work on every part of my game my rebounding, my shooting and my passing,'' he said.

But he may know the key to getting a chance to play in the United States.

''I expect to get taller,'' he said. He now stands 7-2.

Former NBA star Bob Lanier hopes the African players will stand tall in other ways. The Hall of Famer told the players they must help those in their communities who look up to them.

Lanier choked up after watching a dramatization of the ordeal suffered by 17-year-old Lebogang Kgasapane, who was raped twice, ridiculed by police and later discovered she had become HIV positive. She got counseling and a job through the Ithuteng Trust, which operates a home and school for troubled youth in Soweto.

Mutombo cried as he watched the girl's trauma acted out. He announced plans to donate $100,000 to the trust.

''There is so much need here,'' Lanier said.

Just over the hill from the basketball camp's base, tin shanties sprawl across the Diepsloot neighborhood. The Juskei River runs nearby, at times so polluted that squatters in some areas along its banks fall ill with cholera after drinking the water.

Similar scenes are common across Africa a continent of high unemployment and rampant crime, where limited education dooms millions to lives of hardship and the AIDS plague ravages families.

''I think we can be an important influence,'' Lanier said after the NBA opened a reading and computer center at the Ithuteng school. ''What we're doing isn't just about basketball. This is about life.''



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