Report — From the April 2015 issue

American Hustle

How elite youth basketball exploits African athletes

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It was in the 1980s, with the rise of the seven-foot Nigerian center Hakeem Olajuwon, that U.S. basketball mandarins began looking to Africa for talent. Olajuwon starred at the University of Houston before going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Houston Rockets and the Toronto Raptors. Like many Africans, Olajuwon was originally a soccer aficionado; he didn’t convert to basketball until his teens, when a fellow student pressed him to play for the school’s team. His ball-handling skills eventually brought him renown, and Guy Lewis, then the coach at the University of Houston, offered Olajuwon a scholarship. Yet the Nigerian center wasn’t initially treated as a prized recruit: when he first landed in Houston, in 1980, no one even bothered to pick him up at the airport.

The other African star of the era was Dikembe Mutombo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, starred at Georgetown during the 1980s, and went on to play for several NBA teams, becoming one of the best defenders in the history of the league.

The second wave of players from the continent didn’t replicate these successes. In fact, Africans accounted for two of the most notorious draft busts in recent NBA history: Michael Olowokandi, from Nigeria, and Hasheem Thabeet, from Tanzania, both of whom went on to disappointing (and, in Olowokandi’s case, prematurely truncated) careers.

One reason Africans haven’t made a bigger mark on U.S. basketball is that soccer is still the dominant sport on the continent. Africans tend to take up hoops as teenagers, by which time their elite American counterparts will have dedicated hundreds or even thousands of hours to the sport. An infinitesimal number of people have the innate gifts, as Olajuwon did, to compensate for a late start. The NBA has attempted to raise the sport’s visibility in Africa through its Basketball Without Borders camps, which have been held for the past dozen years in Johannesburg, and more recently in Dakar. A handful of NBA players and scouts also sponsor their own camps. For example, Luc Mbah a Moute, a forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, holds an annual showcase in Cameroon, his home country, where he spotted the latest star African import, a seven-foot center named Joel Embiid, who now plays for the same team.

Still, despite these institutionalized paths to the United States, most Africans are recruited through informal channels. Teenagers do a lot of importuning: American coaches often find their email inboxes clogged with missives from African players seeking opportunities abroad. But enterprising coaches have also developed their own recruiting networks. Eric Jaklitsch, for instance, is an assistant coach at Our Savior New American, a private Lutheran school in Centereach, Long Island. He has assembled one of the country’s finest high school basketball teams in part by plucking players from Africa — where he has yet to set foot. Instead, he relies on scouts like Tidiane Dramé, the self-anointed “King of Mali,” who helped to identify Cheick Diallo, a towering Malian power forward. Diallo was one of six African players on the school’s 2014–15 roster — a number that has prodded some observers to dub the team “Our Savior Few Americans.”

Sam Greer appears to have assembled his own web of contacts in Africa. In a phone conversation, he told me that he first visited the continent decades ago, as part of a Christian ministry raising awareness about AIDS. According to a longtime coach in Memphis, Greer was then a local “runner” — a street scout who identified players in and around the city. It seems that Greer upgraded from regional scouting to international recruitment by amassing an insider’s knowledge of African basketball. Indeed, Ene had marveled that the American recruiter was as conversant as any local fan with the Nigerian team’s junior roster.

Greer says that he has brought approximately 250 foreign players to the United States. He also claims that recruiting isn’t his day job: he told me that he works for the federal government, though he gave no indication of his duties or whether they had helped him to target African players. (Officials at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Department of Homeland Security say he isn’t on their payrolls.)

In any case, Greer’s emails to Ene convey an insider’s savvy about both the technical process of obtaining a visa and the image the boys would need to project to U.S. Embassy staff. He explained to Ene that the key bit of documentation the boys would need for their applications was a letter from a school superintendent in Corinth, Mississippi, confirming that they would be attending high school and would stay with a host family who was covering their fees. These letters arrived in Nigeria in March 2011. They made the boys eligible for I-20s: certificates they could use to apply in turn for F-1 visas, which would allow them to live and study in the United States until they graduated from high school.

There are no official records of how many Africans come to the United States to play sports, since recruits aren’t required to identify themselves as such. (Greer instructed his charges not to breathe a word about basketball when they visited the U.S. Embassy in Abuja.) But athletes are much more likely to apply for the F-1 than for the J-1, a cultural-exchange visa with stricter requirements. In 2013, 4,132 F-1 visas were granted to Nigerians, compared with 640 J-1s.

Ene was elated when he received word that his F-1 application had been successful. “Life is going to start,” he remembers thinking. “I’m going to be good.” Ene’s father, however, was appalled by his son’s plan to leave Nigeria, especially because it was facilitated by a sport he reviled. When it became clear that Ene was leaving, his father renounced his parental rights and refused to pay a penny for the airline ticket, forcing his son to solicit donations from friends and relatives.

Despite this showdown, Ene didn’t dwell on the fact that his sole contact in the United States was a complete stranger. “It was America,” he later recalled. “What could go wrong?” He might have seen warning signals in Greer’s emails, which were laced with admonishments that can be read either as concern for the boys’ safety or as preemptive assertions of control. “Remember I will be the person to handle everything for you, and no one will control you I promise that,” he wrote in one email, “so when in America you must tell me everything that goes [on].”

Greer’s insistence on being the boys’ primary custodian, even as he was sending them to live and train with other people, spoke to his knowledge of elite youth basketball. The payoff for identifying talent and securing a young player’s loyalty can be enormous, especially if that player blossoms into an NBA star. Sometimes the payoff is direct: successful pros may share part of their windfall with the people who guided them. Other times it is indirect, but no less lucrative: coaches and agents have been known to provide gifts, cash, and jobs to recruiters who deliver top players to their rosters or client lists.

Reaping such rewards, however, depends on a tight personal connection with the player. Serving as a father figure, or even just a buddy with a bulging wallet, may be enough. But with foreign players, marooned in a strange land with little in the way of cash or connections, this sense of indebtedness can be established in more formal ways. Which may be why Greer wrote Ene before he arrived: “I want to make sure for no reason any one get guardianship but me because I really don’t trust to [sic] many people in America.” Ene, too, would soon come to share that sense of wariness about other people’s motives.

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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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