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A Seven-Footer from Timbuktu...
Leigh Montville
February 17, 1992
...and other tales of the African Olympic basketball trials
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February 17, 1992

A Seven-footer From Timbuktu...

...and other tales of the African Olympic basketball trials

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The Egyptian newspapers will eventually follow this same approach. The Algerians started it. The crowd was well behaved until it was enraged by the unscrupulous Algerians. What can you do? The Algerians, back at their hotel, will say that they were also whacked by the riot police who were sent to help them. Could you believe it? Amazingly, they say that they will stay for the end of the tournament, even though they have only a meaningless game for ninth place to play. Mohamed Yahya, an Algerian guard, shrugs and shows a scar on his chin. He says he received it from an elbow in a game against Egypt four years ago. The game was wild, took five hours to complete. Games against Egypt are tough.

"What were the people yelling during most of the game?" you ask a policeman on the floor who speaks very good English. "What was that chant they kept yelling in Arabic?"

"Oh," he says with a small smile. "That was 'Algeria...the reproductive system of your mother.' That is how I would translate it."

You let Mohammed take you to see the pyramids. You follow the team bus of Cameroon. Your photographer wants to take pictures of the players riding camels in front of the Sphinx. The only problem is that the players, hearing the cost of the camel rides, decide they will walk. Your photographer makes an executive decision. He buys a round of camel rides. Mohammed negotiates the bulk rate, which turns out to be something like $165.

"I will go into the expense-account hall of fame," the photographer says. "Item: $165 for 14 camels."

You meet a 6'6" forward from Morocco who speaks unaccented American English. This is because he lives in Brooklyn, works in a restaurant and has married a girl from Alabama. You ask where he usually plays his basketball. His name is Hassan Jaouani. He says he plays at a Jewish Center in an all-Jewish league. He uses the pseudonym David. No problem.

You do not find the next Olajuwon or Mutombo. You see players named Christian A. Malibangar and Guy Eustache Mbongo and Amin Ghoul and Karim Duattara and Jean-Claude Ntep and Boubacar Aw and Boubacar Ba and Sidi Yeya and Benjamin Ucuahamba and Henri Nanfack and Mamadou Kone and Richard Bah Dhegnan and Seydou Bamba and Mohamed Mbomiko. You do not find Olajuwon or Mutombo.

The lone scout at the tournament is a young guy from the Netherlands, Rob Meurs, who puts out a talent newsletter about European prospects and works on the side for the Golden State Warriors. Meurs says he is "a little bit disappointed" in the talent level at the tournament. He saw no ready-made NBA players and few NCAA Division I possibilities. The ball-handling is bad. The outside shooting is bad. The athletic skills are great, but what are you going to do?

"It's all so hard," Meurs says. "I've talked with a lot of players, had them fill out the forms. They all want to go, they all want an escape, but where would they fit? Here's a kid. [Meurs points to a form.] He's a good athlete. Maybe he could be something with proper coaching. He can't write his name. Where's he going to go?"

Meurs says he wishes he had money and time to go to an African country, work with kids for a couple of years, bring in all the best equipment, all the best food, all the technological advances, build a team and come out and shock the world. Who can do that? The players will be better only when the coaches and the facilities are better. How will that happen? When? The job seems overwhelming.

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