Silva e Cunha has solved the problem by doing all the coaching himself. A white Angolan, the son of Portuguese settlers, he has directed the country's basketball since 1974. Through civil war, in spite of a white evacuation, without a lot of money, he has built his teams from the bottom up in the Angolan capital of Luanda. He has flown with them over bombed-out bridges and impassable roads. Through floods and droughts, whatever the obstacles, he has kept at basketball. His country is at an unsteady peace at last, and his present team has been together for eight years. He has coached some of the players since they were 10 years old.
"The people, they love the baskets," he says. "They sometimes put up the rings on trees. Any kind of ring. The problem is to get the means to improve—the uniforms, the courts, the balls. You need the money. How do you get it when the money has to go for food, for the construction of the roads and bridges? The money for basketball isn't there."
"There are so many problems," Gomis, the forward from Senegal, says. "In Senegal, not the biggest country in the world, we have 65 different dialects. How do you overcome that? The money. How do you overcome that? We have a situation in Dakar now where some doctors are unemployed because there is no money to pay them. At the same time, kids are dying. How do you get all that to work first? You talk about money. Do you know how hard it is to get out of our country? Even the president wouldn't have enough money to send his children to an American college."
Gomis, 24, was lucky. While he was in high school, he came to the attention of a USAID official in Dakar. The official was a friend of Skip Chappelle, who was then the University of Maine basketball coach. The official recommended Gomis and another Senegalese player, Coco Barry. They wound up in Orono, Maine, for four years, learning English and how to cope with cold weather and how to play Division I basketball. Gomis was the Maine co-captain as a senior.
"I was 6'7", 167 pounds when I went there," Gomis says. "With the good food, with the weights, I went over 200 pounds. My father, I remember, said, 'Go for it,' when I had the chance [to play in the U.S.]. My mother was worried. Do you know how American people think that everyone in Africa lives in a jungle and lights lions, even though most of us live in big cities? My mother had the clichés about America. She thought prostitutes and gangsters were everywhere. She didn't know anything about Maine."
You find that most of the American success stories run the same. Someone talked to someone who talked to someone else. There is no organized ladder to help players leave the continent. There are no college scouts in pith helmets. The average young African player will go to Europe to play in the pros as soon as possible, to make money as soon as possible. Why learn English? Why wait?
You see a seven-footer from Mali, who has tried American colleges and returned home to Timbuktu. (A seven-footer from Timbuktu!) You see a seven-footer from the Ivory Coast who went straight to France. You see the best player in the tournament, perhaps, a 19-year-old kid named Etienne Preira, 6'7", from Senegal. He spent a few months in the U.S., stashed in a prep school to learn English by friends of Georgetown basketball, but he grew antsy. He is back. It requires a sense of adventure and a bottom line of dedication to travel so far and survive.
"My one complaint is that the Americans only seem to want the big guys," Nigerian coach Toin Sonoiki says. "Why don't they come over here and take some of our point guards, too? We have some small guys who can play."
Nigeria probably has sent more kids to the U.S. than any other African country. Sonoiki estimates that "between 40 and 60 [Nigerian] players" now are attending American high schools and colleges. The result is that the Nigerian national team is very young, averaging about 19 years old. None of the college kids have returned. Politics also have hurt. Spots on the team are allocated in some cases to keep the country's many tribes happy.
"What about Olajuwon?" you ask. "Has he done much to help?"