Report — From the April 2015 issue

American Hustle

How elite youth basketball exploits African athletes

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Most nights during the early summer of 2011, Chukwuemeka Ene would slip out the back door of a bungalow in Jackson, Mississippi, and make his way to a nearby convenience store. He didn’t mind the Deep South’s steamy heat; it reminded him of the climate in his hometown of Enugu, Nigeria. Ene was seventeen years old, but at six feet three inches tall, he might easily have been mistaken for a man in his twenties. This was particularly true when his broad features took on a brooding expression — and in Jackson, he wasn’t smiling much. Back at the house, two younger Nigerian boys were waiting for him to return with the three loaves of white bread he ritually procured during these expeditions. The boys slept together on the floor of the living room, with one pillow shared among them. Formal meals were limited mostly to sporadic drive-throughs at fast-food restaurants.

That left Ene and his companions — lanky teenagers whom I’ll refer to by their nicknames, Ben and Dixon — perpetually hungry. They had arrived in the United States just a few weeks earlier, hoping to be groomed for college athletic scholarships, and their days were spent on intensive basketball drills and pickup games at the Jackson YMCA.

Illustration by John Ritter

Illustration by John Ritter

Ene had discovered the sport at the age of fifteen, when he stumbled across a game in a local park on his way to visit a cousin. He was mesmerized by the boys hustling back and forth, yelling for the ball. After the game wound down, he took a few tentative shots of his own — and the next day, he returned and joined in the play, shredding a pair of flip-flops in the process. Basketball quickly became an obsession. When Ene wasn’t in class, he was playing with a local high school team or at the park. Sometimes he even slept there, near the court. Passions ran high: once, after an argument over a call, an opponent jumped Ene on his walk home and stabbed him in the hand, just below his thumb. After a trip to the hospital for stitches, Ene returned the following day and worked on dribbling with his nondominant hand.

His prowess at alley-oop passes soon earned him a nickname: Alley. He also won a spot in Nigeria’s national basketball program, beginning with its under-sixteen team. According to Ene, his slavish devotion to the sport infuriated his father, particularly when the tournament schedule required him to miss school. The more Ene learned about the economics of the sport, however, the more convinced he became that it could serve as a social conveyor belt. His family wasn’t well off; they lived in a village on the outskirts of Enugu and operated a poultry farm. But a satellite dish beamed ESPN into their living room, and during marathon viewing sessions Ene learned how transformative basketball had been for a figure like Michael Jordan, catapulting a kid from small-town North Carolina to global stardom.

Ene’s dreams of life in the United States were further burnished by the ongoing migration of his teammates. In one season alone, half a dozen boys on the roster left for the United States, scooped up by scouts and coaches on the hunt for tall, talented players. Ene’s former teammates posted photographs of themselves on Facebook, decked out in Nike high-tops and jerseys, dunking with one hand. Their departures and glamorous reappearances on the Web nagged at him. So when a teammate told Ene about Sam Greer, a man who reportedly brought Africans to the United States to play high school and college basketball, Ene sent an email. He received a terse reply: “Send me a clip so I can see if you can play.”

Greer must have liked the video Ene passed along, because he told the teenager he would take him on. He also asked him to identify other, taller, younger kids who were good players. Ene sent clips of Ben (six feet eight inches) and Dixon (six feet nine inches), both of whom he had met at the park. Greer scooped them up as well. He sent all three boys the paperwork they would need for their visas, and coached them in advance of their consular interviews. “By GODS grace,” Ene wrote Greer, “everything will go well.”

It didn’t. Instead, Ene was to learn that in the unsparing economy of youth basketball, he was little more than a commodity. Players destined for a professional career, or even a spot on a powerhouse college team, are lavished with attention and often slipped cash and gifts. The others are generally cast aside. This rejection would be devastating for any young person — but when foreign players are deemed poor bets, as Ene ultimately was, they’re often left to fend for themselves, halfway across the world from their families, in a country with no formal safety net for undocumented foreigners.

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’s work on this article was supported by an Emerson Fellowship at the New America Foundation and a grant from the Ford Foundation. A broadcast version of the piece is available at WNYC.org.

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