Our Pledge To You

News

U.S. colleges aren’t above exploiting African teens for hoops edge

I noticed it while watching UC  Irvine lose a close first-round game to Louisville on Friday.

How could I not?

The Anteaters player’s name is Mamadou Ndiaye, and he stands 7-6, weighs 300 pounds and has an 8-3 wingspan. That means if you turned him sideways, his arms would cover an entire doorway.

But it wasn’t just that Ndiaye is huge — the largest active player in high school, D-I or the NBA. It was that he is African, from Senegal, and he had been ‘‘discovered’’ in 2010 by a college bird dog while playing pickup ball in a Dakar gym.

Ndiaye came to the United States speaking no English and was found to have a tumor on his pituitary gland, a problem solved by surgery. He had guardians in Huntington Beach, California, moved through high school, and now he has played in the Big Dance.

The heartbreaking 57-55 loss to Louisville nevertheless marked the Anteaters’ first NCAA tourney appearance in 38 years.

And that’s the point here: Basketball, dominated by African-Americans at the highest levels, is starting to skip the American part and go straight to Africa for talent that might lead the way.

It’s not a completely new template — Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) and Dikembe Mutombo (Zaire) have certainly left their marks on the NBA — but with this new trend comes a sense of the dirty but time-honored exploitation of a continent so rich in natural resources but so lacking in fundamental order and control.

Everyone knows how a coach like No. 1-ranked Kentucky’s John Calipari searches for great players — academics and graduation stats be damned. And the college game has become a bifurcated business because of that. A coach can either seek out freakish one-and-dones, as Calipari does, or offer normal players a chance to develop and learn (in school, also) all the way through their senior years.

You can blame the NBA and its entrance rules for some of this. But the NCAA, which allows freshmen to play and tacitly encourages fake education, plays a bigger role. Coach Cal says it again and again: I’m just playing by the rules they gave me. And, like a riverboat gambler with loaded dice, he’s right. So the hunt for the edge never ends.

As Calipari’s assistant coach Orlando Antigua told USA Today after Calipari didn’t like the skills of the players at Kentucky when he was hired in 2009, ‘‘The master plan was to figure out how we could get as much talent as possible.’’

In 2010, five Kentucky players were taken in the first round of the NBA draft, something that had never happened before.  This season, Calipari has nine McDonald’s All-Americans.

So what has this got to do with Africans?

Well, the talent in that incredibly diverse continent is bubbling, even if it is raw, largely uncoached and far afield from the cradle-to-adulthood training that most elite American players undergo. But it’s there, and it’s noticed.

At the recent Nike ‘‘Zoom City’’ showcase, held in a structure built just for the event, on Canal Street in lower Manhattan, I watched four parochial high school teams from the New York area compete in front of college scouts, city fans and hardly any students.

Many of the players were tall, black and gifted. And here were some of the names on Our Savior New American: Cheick Diallo, Kassoum Yakwe, Boubacar Diakite, Mamadou Doucoure, Jeremiah Ochepo. On Roselle Catholic there were Naj Finnie, Rodrique Massenat, Peace Ilegomah and Ganlandou Cisse.

Some were OK, some could jump out of the gym and had excellent shots and handles. Where were these guys from? I asked.

Ghana, somebody said.

Senegal, said Stanley Lumax, the East Coast director for Nike.

Nigeria, said somebody else.

No, said an authoritative city scout. They’re from Mali. And they were.

Shortly after this, I read an article in Harper’s Magazine entitled ‘‘American Hustle: How Elite Youth Basketball Exploits African Athletes.’’ In it, I read about schools like Our Savior that have dominant teams due to relying on dubious African ‘‘scouts’’ who send them players such as Diallo, a 6-9, 225-pound power forward who is a five-star college recruit.

There is money for the scouts, in round-about ways, and for the rare players who make it to the NBA. But many African teen players are brought over and suffer indignities of alienation and poverty and things like sleeping on the floor in a gym for half a year, the report said.

But nothing stops the colleges.

‘‘It’s like an auction,’’ a high school insider told the author, Alexandra Starr. ‘‘Each kid is an item to sell.’’

There, watching, with many others, was John Calipari.

Email: rtelander@suntimes.com
Twitter: @ricktelander