THIRD OF A FOUR-PART SERIES ON GLOBALIZATION IN SPORTS
To find the most prized big man at the world's most remote big-man camp, you have to take four flights, hop on a pothole-weary bus and light out through the desert of northern Nigeria, past bright-red flame trees and mud-brick huts, past giant anthills and emaciated cattle, past Muslim villages where women in multihued boubous draw water from the community well, until you come upon an astonishing sight: a Hoosiers-style gymnasium, rising from the scrub in the town of Zaria. Inside, as daylight fades on an April afternoon, former Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe is running 16-year-old Kenechukwu (Kene) Obi, an impossibly long 7'1", 240-pound Nigerian, through the Mikan drill. "Left leg up!" Ellerbe bellows.
The drill, a series of alternating left-and righthanded layups, is a staple of most junior high practices. But for Kene, who picked up a basketball for the first time just over a year ago, Ellerbe might as well be teaching him the tango. Before long, though, Kene masters the footwork. His eagerness to learn, to make full use of a frame that has earned him the nickname Agwo (snake in Igbo, his native tongue) is palpable. "Right leg up!" Ellerbe says. "There you go. Put it right up on the square. There!"
Surveying Kene and the 27 other gangly teens in identical powder-blue jerseys, all at least 6'8", you can understand why American coaches view Africa—particularly Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation—as the next step in the sport's manifest destiny. "There's a lot of physical talent here, but we lack coaching and facilities," says Masai Ujiri, a U.S.-based Denver Nuggets scout from Nigeria who helped organize the camp. "I want more people to come here and develop the continent because it's the next big thing in world basketball, just like Europe was 15 years ago."
It's starting to happen. Last September, Kene spent six life-changing days in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the NBA's inaugural Africa 100 Camp, the league's first effort at player development on the continent. Despite Kene's rough edges, he drew the attention of Bill Duffy, the superagent whose international clientele includes Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Rasho Nesterovic. Already established in Europe and China, Duffy is setting his sights on Africa, which he views as the most fertile new ground on the planet for basketball players.
"Obi was by far the best prospect there," Duffy says. "He can touch the rim on his tiptoes, he can shoot jump hooks, he's got nice hands, and he can run. I think there are a couple of hundred guys in Africa who could be NBA stars, kids 12 or 13 years old right now, and he's a case study: Can we take somebody from scratch and develop him? If we do that for four years, by the time he's 19 or 20, he could be the first pick in the NBA draft."
Nigeria is at the leading edge of a changing world in which the NBA and its top agents are investing more time and money in more places searching for precious resources (read: 7-footers). These prospects are gradually becoming more accessible—every player in Nigeria will offer you his e-mail address—and are more readily cultivated than they were just a decade ago, thanks to the rising number of options they have worldwide. Should Kene and his fellow campers try the American school system, which offers a free education to go with his basketball training (but limits their practice time)? Or should they opt for the European apprentice system, which places no bounds on the hours players can spend with their coach (but often binds them to brutally long contracts)?
For Kene the speed and scope of the process has been mind-blowing. Suddenly a shy schoolboy from dusty Enugu had American friends in very high places. UConn assistant coach Clyde Vaughan had identified Kene as a potential Huskies recruit and helped broker his admission, including a full-ride scholarship, to the prestigious South Kent ( Conn.) Prep School, a rising hoops powerhouse. When it came time to apply for a U.S. visa in May 2003, his supporting documents included a letter from Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman—written as a favor to Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. Kenechukwu Obi was on the verge of realizing every Nigerian hoopster's dream: to get out of his country.
But the forces of globalization aren't always in sync. Post-9/11 security concerns have made emigration more difficult, and not even Lieberman's support was sufficient to secure Kene's visa. Throw in a host of other obstacles—a trans-Atlantic turf war, a Nigerian Svengali and prowling street agents whose aggressive tactics drove Kene from the courts in Lagos—and Kene barely played basketball in the seven months between the camps in South Africa and Zaria. "I just don't know how much the kid has worked," says Ujiri, shaking his head. "Physically he's gifted, and he went to South Africa and progressed by the day. Then he comes back here and there's no progress."
Noontime in Enugu, eastern Nigeria. The dirt streets of the Achara neighborhood are clogged with lads, animals, sanitation trucks. In a small apartment overlooking a rusting Peugeot on blocks, Godwin Sunday Obi, a 64-year-old retired school principal, welcomes his visitors in the Igbo tradition: with cola fruit, peanut paste and a prayer. "Come here," he says, walking past family portraits and a wall covered with religious slogans: TO KNEEL IS TO WIN. JESUS CAN SET YOU FREE. GOD WORKS WONDERS. Next to the doorway is a winding trail of hash marks that stops seven feet, one inch above the floor. "When Kenechukwu was little, I started measuring him," says Godwin. "After three months I did it again, and then again. Finally I had to stand on a chair. Now he may be the tallest man in Enugu State!"