Manute Bol, the 7'7" center from Southern Sudan passed away this year. Manute played with the Warriors and later with the Baltimore Bullets. An NBA fan favorite, he ended his life better known as a humanitarian who spent most of his salary helping to build schools in his war ravaged country than as an NBA impact player.
Manute never reached the talented heights of Hakeem Olajuwon nor did he possess the defensive skills of Dikenbe Mutombo, but he blocked enough shots to worry most players driving to the basket. As far as his shooting, I remember watching in amazement as he thrust the ball over his head and flung it like a spear at the basket from beyond the three-point line. (Manute once admitted to killing a lion with a spear in his tribe's initiation ritual.) As improbable as those shots of his were, they often hit their target much to the delight of fans and teammates.
West Africa has provided the NBA with a number of basketball players, the aforementioned Hakeem the Dream from Nigeria, and Dikembe Mutombo from the Republic of the Congo, and Manute. Today there are six active players from the continent of Africa in the NBA, Mbah a Moate/Cameroon; Ibaka/Republic of the Congo and Deng/Sudan playing significant minutes.
Although I am fascinated by the number of international players now contributing to the NBA, I'm particularly interested in the African players. For me it's personal. I am pleased to remember that I was part of the initial growth of basketball in West Africa.
In the summer of 1962 Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, and Red Auerbach became the first group from the NBA to travel to West Africa to coach and promote the game. The following year John Havlick, Casey Jones, and I made the trip, spending one week coaching and playing exhibition games in five different countries: Senegal, Mali, Guinee, Ivory Coast, and Liberia. We put on clinics and played exhibition games. For games we conscripted a few embassy and Peace Corps folks to round out our team. Some of the Peace Corps guys, such as Chris Appel of USC, had played high school and college ball.
Of all the terrific experiences I've every had in professional sports, my African trips rank in my top five. In those early days of basketball, we encountered no Olajuwans or Dengs, but we did work with plenty of enthusiastic men and women eager to learn about the American game. (The French had introduced their version of basketball earlier - Le Basket - to their former colonies, but their version of the game reminded me of French cooking recipes, too complicated.)
We were working with novices under conditions that were rudimentary. In some places, the players played without shoes. All the courts, except one in Ivory Coast, were outdoors. We practiced in the mornings before the heat of the day became too much to bear and before the afternoon rains flooded the courts. Still, every morning we were met by dozens of hopefuls, all eager to learn.
The following year I flew over again, this time with Siugo Green, of the St. Louis Hawks. This time we started in Algeria and almost got trapped there in the middle of a national coup. We escaped to Guinee on the last plane leaving the country. From Guinee we worked our way, country by country, down the west coast.
Much later, in the fall of 1984, I traveled back to West Africa by myself for an extended stay. I spent Christmas in Bamako at the American Embassy singing Jingle Bells under a lighted palm tree in 95 degree weather. Very strange, but far closer to the original landscape of the Christ's birth. It had been twenty years since my last visit to West Africa, and I could see remarkable improvement. Hakeem Olajuwan had just started his first year with the Houston Rockets. I knew it wouldn't be long before more players from Africa would be following his example.
After 1984, I never returned to West Africa. Sadly those early years of national enthusiasm and optimism have disappeared, replaced by more cynical political and economic realities, but unlike the countries, the game of basketball has not regressed. Most of the young African players John, Casey and I worked with back then are in their late middle-ages by now, their own dreams of greatness in the NBA long gone, but hopefully passed on to their children or grandchildren.
Hakeem the Dream by Tom Meschery
In Africa each morning practice starts
with warm-ups. The youngest on the team,
perhaps sixteen, waits patiently for me,
sitting in the thin shade below the backboard,
reading the latest article about Hakeem.
We stretch ham-strings, then slow-jog
around the court. He keeps pace, all the while
talking about The Dream. "Dis donc," he says,
"With The Dream we would defeat Senegal
and be champions of West Africa.
Que pense, toi, entraineur?" What do I think?
I can't, about anything more than the red
and smoky sun rising over the opposite basket,
the heat already sweating my shirt, and how
the rains suddenly begin half way through practice.
I shag his jump shots, the ones he swears
are like Hakeem's. He says he will also attend
the University of Houston, later play for the NBA.
"Vous m'assistez?" But his shots are ugly, too flat.
They lack the back-spin, the softness of the Dream's.
I nod my head, whatever I can do, I say, my best shot.
I am in the country of Burkina Fasso.
It's name means, land of up-right people.
What my musings are all about...
Blogging might well be the 21st century's form of journaling. As a writing teacher, I have always advised my students to keep a daily journal as a way of organizing their thoughts for future writing projects, a discipline I have unfortunately never consistently practiced myself. By blogging, I might finally be able to follow my own good advice.
The difference between journaling and blogging is that the blogger opens his or her writing to the public, something journal- writers are usually reluctant to do. I am not so reticent.
The trick for me will be to avoid cluttering the internet with more blather, something none of us need more of. If I stick to subjects I know: sports and literature, I believe I can avoid that pitfall. I can't promise that I'll not stray from time to time to comment on ancillary subjects, but I will make every attempt to be interesting and perhaps even insightful.