Bullets whizzed over their heads as they ducked and squirmed away from the fire. How could this be happening?, Alexis Wangmene and Patrick Bouli thought to themselves. Less than a week earlier, Wangmene and Bouli were safe, playing basketball with an African youth league all-star team touring the United States. It was 2004, and their group could hardly believe what they saw in New York. Everything seemed bigger. The crowds. The cars. The skyscrapers. They visited Texas, too, to play against high schools and colleges in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. They marveled at their opponents’ schedules, with as many as 30 games in one season — in Africa, some seasons lasted just four games.
Wangmene, a powerful player with a quick smile, was the youngest member of the team at just 15 years old. Bouli, a point guard and captain, was the oldest at 18. They were two of only three players from Cameroon, a central African nation on the continent’s west coast. Their itinerary called for a short layover in Ivory Coast on the way home from the tour, but they hadn’t anticipated the civil war that erupted shortly before they landed in Abidjan, its commercial capital. When the boys landed, they found an airport in utter disarray. Gunshots rang out as militants dressed in army garb shouldering semiautomatic weapons fired at insurgents outside the grounds.
Bouli,1 who had no cell phone service, remembered Wangmene’s connection with an American man back in San Antonio. He urged Wangmene, whose cell phone flickered with a couple of bars, to call the man immediately. So he dialed up R.C. Buford. Buford dropped everything he was doing and called Amadou Gallo Fall, a driving force in African basketball. Within minutes, Fall reached a pastor in the area. Thirty minutes later, the priest arrived at the airport, extracted the teenagers, and shepherded them to safety.
Bouli went on to play for Manhattan College.
Larry Brown arrived at the University of Kansas in 1983, but he didn’t last long. He did as Larry Brown does, resuscitating the program with a few spectacular seasons before abruptly departing under a haze of uncertainty in 1988. But before that, he presided over one of the greatest collections of basketball instructors ever, a group whose influence stretched across the sport for decades. His assistants in Lawrence included Alvin Gentry, Bill Self, John Calipari, John Robic, and Bill Bayno. Gregg Popovich, in taking a year-long sabbatical from coaching Division III’s Pomona-Pitzer, became a volunteer assistant in 1985-86. Some of Brown’s players at the time, like Mark Turgeon, Danny Manning, and Kevin Pritchard, eventually evolved into coaching disciples, too. “It was a real education,” said Buford, a graduate assistant during Brown’s inaugural season at Kansas. “Working for Coach Brown was like getting a PhD.”
Buford’s wire-rim glasses, thoughtful demeanor, and dry sense of humor made him seem professorial, too. It was good training for his future: For the better part of two decades, Buford has engineered the well-oiled San Antonio Spurs, first as a scout and ultimately as GM since 2002. But the path to San Antonio almost never presented itself.
Buford was born in Wichita and worked at basketball camps at KU, where he met then head coach Ted Owens. The coach promised Buford a graduate assistant position, but Owens was doomed by consecutive losing seasons — an unpardonable sin at Kansas. Fortunately for Buford, he grew up with a kid named Jeff Johnson, whose father, Monte, happened to be Kansas’s athletic director. Monte told Buford that he would petition Owens’s replacement to honor their arrangement, and Brown agreed to bring him onboard. “Larry didn’t have anybody to walk his dogs or pick up his laundry, and that fit my skill set perfectly,” Buford recently joked in his San Antonio office.
The early stages of basketball’s global evolution coincided with Brown’s tenure in Lawrence. There were few international players on the scene at the time. Before Arvydas Sabonis, before Dirk Nowitzki, and before Yao Ming, there was “The Dream.” But a 17-year-old named Akeem Olajuwon arrived to virtually no fanfare at the University of Houston in 1980. Houston and Kansas met in a non-conference game in November 1983 — Buford’s second game as a graduate assistant — and the Cougars trounced the Jayhawks that night, 91-76. It triggered an epiphany for Buford. “[On] the very first play, Greg Dreiling took a hook shot and Olajuwon blocked it with his underarm,” Buford recalled. “We knew we had moved up to the big boys for sure.” That night, Buford knew basketball was headed for global expansion. Many expected a new pipeline would open between the United States and Africa, but Buford was certain it would happen. Maybe, one day, goliaths like Olajuwon would define the game.
Alexis Mang-Ikri Wangmene was destined to become chief of the Toupouri tribe. His mother, Germaine, was descended from chiefs. With the title, Wangmene would act as a sort of pseudo-mayor in Maroua, a city of more than 300,000 in northern Cameroon. He could marry as many as five women. To gain the respect of the tribe, he’d need to wed at least four.
Tribe members would come to him with their problems and he would act as policeman, judge, and jury. But Wangmene worried about the responsibility. He wasn’t interested in the burden of a massive family in the name of respect. He had only one sister, Raissa, three years his elder. Their father, Theophile, a general in the Cameroonian army, preached to Wangmene that a man’s success had little to do with the size of his family. Success, Theophile said, was in providing for the family you have.
The family lived on a military camp, where they were neither the richest nor poorest. Their three-bedroom brick house was modest, but Wangmene felt privileged. Theophile’s military duties forced him to travel often, though he kept his children on a strict regimen at home — sometimes, he’d lock Wangmene and Raissa in a room for hours with nothing more than a book and a glass of water.
Germaine, a schoolteacher, provided the gentle touch. Any decision Wangmene had to make, he brought to her first. He never thought he’d leave his mother’s side. Germaine knew Wangmene would become the chief, but she held out hope that he might also become a doctor. The region lacked medical knowledge and resources. He’s so intelligent and so dedicated, she thought. He could help.
But he was athletic, too. Wangmene was tall and getting taller. He loved soccer, which was more of a religion than a sport in Cameroon. When Theophile and his friends needed another able body, Wangmene would play volleyball with his father. But basketball? Just watching hoops in Cameroon was nearly impossible. Across 180,000 square miles and some 20 million people, there were only two indoor courts. After Wangmene’s birth in 1989, it took another dozen years before Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje became the first Cameroonian to play in the NBA.
Basketball, though, has a way of unearthing talent, no matter where it’s hiding.
A coach spotted Wangmene on his way to a volleyball game with his father around the same time Boumtje-Boumtje made his debut for the Trail Blazers. Wangmene, not yet a teenager, already stood 6-foot-5.
The coach knew Germaine and pitched him on giving basketball a shot. Germaine told her son to try it. But he was baffled at first. Why must you use your hands so much? The game didn’t appear physical, but he found himself getting pushed around. He knew he had a lot to learn, and he was the butt of a lot of jokes as he stumbled and fumbled around the court. But he embraced basketball fully, studying it and staying up late to watch NBA games. Some mornings, after a long night of NBA action, he’d go to school after getting just three hours of sleep. Tim Duncan’s Spurs were his favorite team.
A pipeline never did develop between the United States and Africa in the ’90s. “There was this Olajuwon phenomenon that had people’s hopes and expectations probably out of whack,” Buford said.
In actuality, Olajuwon turned out to be one of the greatest flukes ever. Guy Lewis, the University of Houston’s coach, didn’t even bother to pick up the unheralded center from the airport after his first flight from Nigeria — he told the teenager to take a cab. The Rockets made Olajuwon the first overall pick four years later. Other African players, such as Dikembe Mutombo and Manute Bol, would follow, but those successes were few and far between.
Scouts who did travel to Africa found a fractured, nearly nonexistent basketball system. Soccer is still the continent’s overwhelming pastime. Indoor courts are rare. The language differences among countries have made it difficult for the sport to gain traction. In the 1990s, few knew the game well enough to coach it properly, and corruption wracked many of the federations. Donnie Nelson was one of the first to aggressively pursue an overseas strategy. He assisted the Lithuanian national team, scouted for USA Basketball, advised China’s national team, and signed the first Soviet player (Sarunas Marciulionis) and first Chinese player (Wang Zhizhi) to NBA contracts. He first visited Africa in 1992, and saw the dire state of the game there firsthand. At one of the first camps he conducted in Nigeria, three participants didn’t have shoes.
“There was minimal coaching,” said Nelson,2 the president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks. “There was not a lot of emphasis on the sport. No fundamentals were being taught. So it was challenging.”
Nelson was in a taxi when he got caught in a monsoon during one Nigeria trip. “The water started rising really fast,” Nelson told the Dallas Morning News. “The taxi couldn’t move, but the driver acted like nothing was going on. ‘Happens all the time,’ he said.”
By then, Buford had joined the Spurs, where Brown and Popovich had also relocated. Brown is long gone, but Buford and Popovich have stuck around, nearly joined at the hip for 20 years. When Popovich served a five-year military commitment, touring Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with the U.S. Armed Forces Team as a young man, he learned to appreciate the vastness of the globe and promised to scout worldwide, to travel where others would not. Buford did the same, eventually building an internationally flavored (and consistently successful) roster in the process. In 2001, he instructed Sam Presti, then a Spurs intern, to compile a highlight reel of a skinny French teenager. The teenager’s workout left Popovich unimpressed. But the video montage helped convince him to draft that kid. His name was Tony Parker.
The NBA, meanwhile, stopped waiting for a pipeline to grow organically. The league, in conjunction with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, launched Africa 100 in 2003. The effort consisted of bringing together 100 teenagers from across the continent for a few days of intense training in Johannesburg. Players like Mutombo and Olumide Oyedeji instructed; African-born NBA players like Boumtje-Boumtje and DeSagana Diop played. Coaches from nearly half the teams in the NBA participated. The project was considered a success, a strong first step in bringing the sport to a massive land of opportunity and talent.
“Africa really is an untapped resource,” Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s vice-president for international basketball operations, told the New York Times in 2003. “There’s so much potential.”
Sensing that potential, Buford suggested that Lance Blanks, then the Spurs’ director of scouting, get involved in the NBA’s initiative.3 Blanks agreed, figuring the Spurs might as well be at the forefront of a new frontier. Buford, compelled by Blanks’s experience, decided to make the trip himself in 2004.
Blanks is now the general manager of the Suns. “Excitement is the best way I can describe what went through my head when R.C. made the request,” Blanks wrote in an e-mail. “This was over 10 years ago and he challenged me to get involved with the African vision for basketball and I have yet to stop giving time and energy. Helping grow the game in Africa and supporting the positive initiatives is addictive. The people there have such an appreciation for the game and the support that is given.”
That year, scouts selected Wangmene for another camp in Johannesburg, sponsored by Basketball Without Borders, the international partnership between the NBA and FIBA. By then, Wangmene had grown to 6-foot-8 and his game had begun to develop. When Luc Mbah a Moute, now a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, left for school in the United States, Wangmene assumed his spot on Cameroon’s junior national team. He performed well, catching the eye of Nigeria’s then coach, Masai Ujiri. Soon, word began to travel about a raw but developing power forward from Maroua.
Buford can’t pinpoint the moment he decided to grow his family. His parents had adopted a student from Kenya, so he knew what the experience could mean for a family. After his time spent at the Basketball Without Borders camp, he believed that the right kid, with a love of basketball and a desire to grow, could benefit from the opportunity. R.C. and his wife, Beth, debated the idea, but she didn’t take much convincing. The Bufords had the room to accommodate another person in their house, and they figured that their son, Chase, could use another basketball player around to improve his game. So R.C. and Beth brought the idea to Chase and their daughter, C.C. — getting their approval was the last step. Chase, 15, wondered whether he’d be babysitting for the foreseeable future. All 12-year-old C.C. knew about older brothers she’d learned from Chase. She worried another would only mean ganging up on her. Needless to say, they took some convincing.
When R.C. and Beth traveled to Johannesburg in 2004, they couldn’t believe the communication breakdown standing in the way of unified African basketball. French-speaking campers from Cameroon couldn’t connect with Angolans speaking Portuguese; Northern Africans spoke Arabic, struggling to work with the smattering of English speakers from Nigeria. NBA coaches instructed kids relatively new to the game by way of a small team of harried interpreters.
The field of eligible children for the Bufords quickly narrowed. They sought someone around Chase’s age, focused on education and basketball development, and from a country where securing a student visa wouldn’t present many hurdles.
Buford first noticed Wangmene’s smile. Then his calm, kind demeanor. They asked about his family, but the French-speaking Wangmene’s grasp of English started with “yes” and extended all the way to “thank you.” He listened, but wondered why these strangers were asking all these questions. They asked about his priorities and Wangmene answered through an interpreter that his father stressed education before all else. “OK, we can help you achieve that if you want to,” R.C. said. “You can come to the United States, live with us, go to school, and play basketball, if you’d like.” Chase and C.C. would be his siblings, Beth stressed to him.
This isn’t happening, Wangmene thought. He debated the chance to move to the U.S. with other campers. Even though the other campers didn’t know anything about Buford’s role with the Spurs, they told Wangmene that this is why they were here. He relayed the offer to his parents that night. “Come home,” Germaine said. “We’ll see if it’s a good decision.” Wangmene quickly realized how much his mother disliked the idea. She had a stereotypical view of black America, informed by BET and CNN. American blacks rapped, played a sport, or robbed, she thought. Wangmene was her only son, destined to carry the family name forward. She wanted him close. He asked his grandfather, a respected businessman, to talk to Germaine and clarify what this could mean for him. After several hours, she reluctantly acquiesced. Wangmene was bound for America, leaving behind his family, and with it, his right to become a chief.
After his maiden voyage to the States as part of the youth all-star touring team, Wangmene departed for the Bufords and a new future in America — just one month after his harrowing experience in the Ivory Coast airport. Before he left Cameroon, he slaughtered a sheep for a feast, a ritual for young men departing for an extended journey. Theophile counseled Wangmene about remaining singularly focused on his goal — to better himself. Wangmene spent the rest of the day with his mother. He followed her around in the kitchen, but they barely spoke.
“If you go, you can’t forget about me,” Germaine said. “You have to call me all the time and let me know what’s going on. You have to finish school before you decide to do anything else with basketball. Basketball will be there forever, but you have to get your education, so you can bring the knowledge back home.”
They left the next day for the bus station. “Here we go,” Theophile said. “Just be smart.” Germaine remained quiet. She hugged her son and sobbed.
Wangmene, exhausted, stepped out of the terminal in Wichita Mid-Continent Airport around midnight on Christmas Eve. He wore a paper-thin sweater as he stepped into the freezing cold. I’m here, he thought. Now what?
He knew he’d get lost in the airport, so he packed only a small carry-on to avoid checking luggage. The contents of the bag: five shirts and some presents for the Bufords — traditional African clothing. When he found the family, Wangmene exchanged long, awkward hugs with everyone before they departed together. But they weren’t headed to San Antonio yet. Instead, they drove to R.C.’s parents’ home in southern Kansas, where the extended family awaited. He said hello, ate some of Beth’s chicken pot pie, and retired to the room he shared with Chase. All night, anxiety overwhelmed him. “I don’t speak English,” he said to himself. “I’m just going to go up there and … what? Stand there and laugh? Not say anything? What if they don’t like me? How do you even say ‘Merry Christmas’?”
He needed sleep. He’d answer those questions, or try to, in the morning.
But Wangmene didn’t have time to think about much on that Christmas morning.4 He simply opened presents with his new family. (He received an iPod and some much-needed clothes.) R.C.’s sister, Jo, spoke some French and helped bridge the language gap. Wangmene, otherwise, said yes and nodded frequently.
Anne Buford, R.C.’s sister, remembers wishing that she had a camera to document the moment. The scene served as inspiration for her excellent documentary, Elevate, which captures several Senegalese teenagers as they journey to the United States to continue their basketball careers and education.
They returned to San Antonio, his new home, a few days later. Wangmene had a room all to himself, a Tim Duncan poster already on the wall, and towels embroidered with his name.5 Sean Elliott, the former Spurs player, gave Wangmene his first suit. The Bufords hoped that Wangmene would attend Alamo Heights High with Chase, but University Interscholastic League residency rules stymied that option. Instead, Wangmene enrolled at Central Catholic Marianist High School. Students clamored for a peek at Wangmene through the window of the principal’s office on his first day. It quickly became clear that Central Catholic was counting on him. The school, which ran a three-guard offense, didn’t have a big man on its roster before he showed up. Wangmene was expected to transform the team’s identity immediately.
Wangmene still has and treasures those towels.
He didn’t disappoint. The gymnasium at Central Catholic was rocking at his first game, cheering, whooping, and chanting his name as he scored 29 points in a loss. His teammates passed him the ball all night, almost too often. He wanted to tell them to start shooting some themselves, but he didn’t know how. Eddie Ybarra, Central Catholic’s coach, found a short-term solution. He invited a couple of girls from the sister school’s French class to sit on the bench and travel to games.
From afar, the transition appeared to be going smoothly. But a loneliness haunted Wangmene. He could not speak without being interrupted, as people struggled to guess what he tried to say. When he desperately wanted to talk, to hear a familiar voice, it seldom matched the hour that his parents or sister could get on the phone. He became frustrated. He questioned his decision again and again.
Beth, meanwhile, was learning how to care for another teenager in her family. A French-speaking tutor worked with Wangmene a couple of times a week, and for those few hours Wangmene was free, untethered from his ever-present English phrase book. The mother in Beth wanted to include Wangmene in every conversation and tried to support him any way she could. One day, she helped him with his religion homework. “Now copy this down,” she said, instructing him what to write. He returned with the paper and a D grade a few days later. He had written “Now copy this down” on the paper. Oh great, Beth thought. Now they know he had somebody helping him and I’m getting a D in religion.
Wangmene, Chase, and C.C. watched Dodgeball during his first week in San Antonio. The Buford children laughed throughout the movie, but Wangmene was always a beat or two behind — he had to wait for the translation a few seconds later. Chase once caught him watching Gigli and Win a Date With Tad Hamilton! by himself and teased him. He claimed he was using the movies as a learning tool — a way to understand how actions and words worked together. But he learned most of his English by watching HBO’s Entourage, imagining himself as the African Vincent Chase.
Wangmene spent a year and a half at Central Catholic and improved his game, but it wasn’t enough. R.C. and Wangmene agreed that he needed to get better at an accelerated pace if he had any hope for a scholarship at a major program.6 They settled on New Jersey’s Blair Academy,7 the same school that fostered Luol Deng. The Bufords traveled to New Jersey with Wangmene, and when they arrived, his mind flashed back to the day Theophile and Germaine dropped him off at the bus station — he’d traveled so far.
Central Catholic lost Wangmene’s final game on a last-second shot. Eddie Ybarra, the coach, knew that Wangmene planned on departing after his junior year. That amplified the sense of emptiness. “I’ll never forget him telling me at the end of the game, ‘It’s not supposed to end this way,’” Ybarra said. “As a coach, you want to give that fighting chance, that opportunity to all of your players.”
“The one funny thing about him coming from Cameroon, he really wasn’t familiar with when to call fouls and when not to call fouls,” said Joe Mantegna, Blair’s Academy basketball coach. “We had a number of brawls in our pickup games early that fall because he would call fouls or wouldn’t know when to call fouls. All my guys from New York and New Jersey would get mad at him.”
Beth was quiet as she said good-bye. She hugged him and sobbed. By then, Wangmene felt comfortable calling R.C. “Dad” and Beth “Mom.” I have two sets of parents now, he thought to himself as they drove off.
By the time Wangmene entered his sophomore season at the University of Texas, his dreams were becoming a reality. Kevin Durant had hosted him on his recruiting trip, and he’d quickly grown to love the program. (Plus, he was close enough to San Antonio that he could travel home for Beth’s chicken pot pies regularly.) He anticipated following his solid freshman season, when he played in 37 of 38 games, with a leap forward. But a knee injury lingered. Wangmene always played hard, and if his knee didn’t heal, he told himself he’d work through it. “There were some days when I didn’t feel like going up against him in practice and he pushed me,” Dexter Pittman, a reserve for the Memphis Grizzlies and former UT teammate, recently said. “He kind of helped me get here by pushing me.” Pittman had a good time ribbing Wangmene, too. “The way he talks, he thinks he’s Prince Akeem [from] Coming to America sometimes.”
Then, early in his sophomore season, everything changed. One night in October while watching LeBron James dominate an opponent, Wangmene checked his e-mail. A friend in Cameroon had reached out, urging him to call home. Germaine had taken ill, she wrote. An e-mail from another friend followed shortly after that. And another after that. Wangmene sensed the worst. He called home, and a cousin answered. Why was she answering and not Theophile or Germaine or Raissa? “You’ve got to come home,” his cousin said. “Your mom is not here anymore. You’ve got to come back and say good-bye.”
Earlier that week, Germaine had complained of stomach pain. She visited a hospital, but was cleared by doctors and released the following day. She collapsed in the shower three days later. It could have been food poisoning, water poisoning, maybe a stroke. Wangmene still isn’t sure. In Cameroonian culture, Wangmene said, it’s customary to shield one from the worst. Still, resentment toward his father and sister grew. Why didn’t they alert him to his mother’s illness? He desperately wanted one last conversation with her, but it was too late.
Beth didn’t hesitate to travel with Wangmene for his mother’s funeral. He told her the trip would be arduous, but she insisted, so the Bufords rushed a visa for Beth. They arrived on a delayed flight to Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, on a Wednesday, but missed the connecting flight on a plane that departs once a day, every other day. If they waited until Friday they’d miss the funeral, so they boarded a train. They settled in for a dozen hours before it screeched to a stop because of a spill on the track. They hopped off and piled into a Toyota Corolla that doubled that day as a packed taxi. Beth took one look at the car and figured it had to be at least two decades old. They fit, all five passengers, elbow to elbow, for the next few hours darting and swerving on dirt roads.
Miraculously, they made it in time for the funeral. In Cameroon, Beth found herself completely dependent on Wangmene, their roles suddenly reversed. She wondered how he did it as a 15-year-old in a foreign country with no friends or family. Wangmene knew that Beth would do anything for him. He dreaded thinking of how he would have fared on the long, winding trip by himself.
When he returned to Austin, he found his knee injury had worsened. Wangmene played in just four games before being granted a medical redshirt. He bounced back the next season, playing in 30 games and developing into a rugged interior defensive stopper with a limited offensive repertoire. He loved the games against Kansas, where Chase now played. Beth and C.C. made custom jerseys that split the Longhorns and Jayhawks colors. One read “Wang-ord.” The other, “Buf-mene.” Beth dreaded these games, remembering that parents are only as happy as their most miserable child.
Wangmene, a good student, made the honor roll at Texas. But his journey nearly came to an abrupt end early on a Sunday morning in February 2011. Police arrested him on charges of driving while intoxicated near Interstate 35 and Airport Boulevard in Austin. Texas coach Rick Barnes suspended him for two games. Barnes talked to him about responsibility. Barnes’s older sister, Sandy, was killed when a motorist fell asleep at the wheel. “He was embarrassed,” Barnes said. “He was hurt and I think he felt like he let down a lot of people.”
R.C. and Beth seldom raise their voices. After the arrest, Wangmene would have rather seen them mad than disappointed. They didn’t shout when they confronted him about the incident. They didn’t have to. “What are you going to say?” Beth said. “That’s really a stupid thing to do.”
Wangmene’s college career ended last year in a game against Kansas. In the second half of the game he tried to block a shot and used his left hand to brace the fall, landing awkwardly and dislocating his wrist. He celebrated senior night in Austin only a few days later. R.C. and Beth stood at midcourt with Wangmene and his framed jersey. Wangmene pulled his warm-up over his eyes, hiding his tears.
“Young people are current,” Barnes said. “They don’t understand how life is a vapor, how quick it goes.” Beth sobbed freely next to Wangmene. “It’s an incredible story when someone brings someone into their family,” Barnes recently said. “They’re saying, ‘We’ve been blessed. We’ve got so much to give and we want to give it.’ It’s one thing, people doing things financially, but now it’s totally different when you change your whole lifestyle, when you bring a person in that you’re going to feed every day, that you’re going to see every day, that you’re going to hurt when they hurt. They become a part of your life.”
“They didn’t do anything but love him the way biological parents would love their kids,” he added. “They poured their hearts and everything out to him. He is their son and there is no other way to put it.”
Wangmene still calls R.C. Dad. He still calls Beth Mom. He calls Theophile Dad. He seeks counsel from all of them.
“I didn’t find any conflict at all,” Wangmene said. “And I know if I’m trying to make a decision and I tell R.C. and he tells me something and I go tell my dad and my dad would also tell me something similar. Or even the same thing. When I know that, it just makes it easier for me not to get caught up in who’s your real dad.”
Amadou Gallo Fall recognizes the reciprocal nature of basketball. He knows what it gives and can give back. A member of the Peace Corps discovered Fall, which led to him earning a scholarship at the University of the District of Columbia, where he graduated magna cum laude. Fall worked for the Mavericks and continued his grassroots efforts to raise basketball awareness in Senegal and throughout Africa.
The NBA opened its first African office in Johannesburg three years ago. Fall is heading the efforts.
“There’s tremendous passion for basketball among boys and girls,” Fall said recently. “We are coming here and bringing in the expertise, but at the same time making the game accessible was the first order of the day. We’re very pleased with where we are with awareness and also more countries and more young people being aware of the NBA’s presence on the continent.”
“The challenge,” he added, “is to figure out a way to stay disciplined and focused because there is so much to do and also so much potential that you see wherever you go.”
Significant problems remain. Connecting a vast continent of countries and languages remains a challenge. “They lack a lot of coaching,” said Tony Ronzone, a longtime international scout who now works for the Mavericks. “A lot of kids, you see their potential when they come over here, but they’re still not there. A lot of that has to do with a lack of game experience, lack of coaching, lack of playing with better players. They are always behind a little bit.”
The game is still peppered with graduates from Fall’s SEEDS (Sports for Education and Economic Development) Academy in Senegal and Basketball Without Borders. Mbah a Moute became the first Basketball Without Borders participant to reach the NBA in 2008.
“I was just at the All-Star Game and I saw a lot of the people, players, and participants that were brought closer because of Basketball Without Borders,” said Ujiri, now general manager of the Denver Nuggets. “I go to college games now and I read the names in the programs and I’m like, ‘Wow, he’s actually playing here now?’ There’s been so many of them.”
The Austin Toros, an NBA Development League team owned by the Spurs, hosted the Canton Charge in early February. Wangmene’s college career didn’t end the way he’d hoped. Injuries and tragedy collided in those five years, but his basketball life isn’t over yet. The Development League consists of players trying to better themselves through trial and error, clinging to a childhood dream. Wangmene is 24 years old, no longer the child who arrived in Kansas on that cold Christmas Eve. He’s still trying to figure out what to make of his basketball opportunity and reconcile that with the lingering questions about his mom.
“The reason why I left first was because of basketball, and that was one of the reasons why I wasn’t there,” Wangmene said. “If I hadn’t played, I would have been there and maybe everything would have been different. Who knows? But one thing that I’m trying to actually get back is the confidence that I had before. I’m starting to play again like I first fell in love with the game. I’m starting to get that feeling back and I’m starting to get all my confidence. The answer is still not there, but what are you going to do? You just have to keep moving and trying to represent her the best you could.”
R.C. Buford still wants Wangmene to reach his potential. He’s his father here, and his advocate everywhere. “With his mom passing, there’s been a lot of guilt that Lex feels over that — almost that , ‘Did she die of a broken heart?'” Buford said. “I don’t think that’s the case, but it’s definitely something that weighs on him.”
Wangmene plays only a handful of minutes most nights. He never got off the bench against Canton. His dreams of playing in the NBA are dimming. But Buford brushed aside the question of nepotism. “He had a good college career,” he said. “The Development League is made up of hundreds of people with parallel college careers to Lex.”
But he’s got other priorities now. Wangmene established Leading Through Reading, a burgeoning nonprofit aimed at building libraries in Cameroon and other countries. The African way, Wangmene says, is to be patient, unlike the NBA in waiting for that African pipeline to develop organically. He wants to be at the forefront now, establishing learning centers in Maroua and other cities to teach languages, nutrition, and education.
There’s another saying in Africa that’s become popular among the growing basketball culture: If you help one African, he will spread his blessings to 100 more. Wangmene wants to help others, and he always believed basketball would pave the way. It did, though perhaps not quite how he envisioned. But that goal remains the same. It’s the only way to make the most of his opportunities and to make his parents — all of them — proud.