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Garry Walter
June 28, 2004
A former U.S. college coach has migrated to the Canary Islands to develop African hoopsters
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June 28, 2004

Prodigies' Paradise

A former U.S. college coach has migrated to the Canary Islands to develop African hoopsters

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If you were an American coach looking to start a basketball academy for young Africans, you couldn't ask for a better site than Tenerife, a sun-bathed tourist mecca in Spain's Canary Islands. Tenerife offers European amenities, good schools and—most important—is a mere 200 miles from West Africa's hoops hotbeds. Such was Rob Orellana's thinking when he left his job as an assistant at Cal State-Fullerton last year and set up the Arona Basket Sur Academy, named for the town in which it's located. "As far as talent is concerned, these kids were sprinkled with gold dust from God," says Orellana. "They just don't have the opportunities. My dream would be to make this into something like the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida."

Although the NBA and its top agents are putting boots on the ground in Africa, Orellana argues that the continent won't realize its full potential until NBA teams set up year-round development academies the way major league baseball teams did in the Caribbean during the 1970s. Unlike the leading European clubs, which sign the young players they develop to contracts, Arona is a strictly amateur operation, thus preserving U.S. college eligibility for the 12-to 18-year-olds who come there. "The thinking is to get them to the States," says Orellana, 39, who recruited throughout West Africa as a college assistant. "But if the kids are academically unable to get into college, then we can get them to clubs all over Europe."

With the support of team president Eloy Garcia and financial backing from civic sponsors, Arona combines the best of the American and European systems, providing room and board, high-level instruction, a daily training regimen (including weights and two-a-day practices) and scholarships to a nearby school. In his first year Orellana recruited two Senegalese prospects, notably 14-year-old Pape Mamadou Samb, a 6'9" forward from Dakar. He led tiny Arona to the Sweet 16 of Spain's cadet-level tournament, where it fell by just two points to the cadet-level team of mighty FC Barcelona—which immediately tried to sign Samb. "Their recruiting coordinator told us he was the best prospect he's seen in Spain since Pau Gasol," says Orellana. He persuaded Samb to return to Tenerife, where he'll be joined this fall by his 7'1" brother, 18-year-old Cheik; two guards from the Republic of Georgia; a host of prospects from Senegal; and—perhaps—Kene Obi.

With Spanish immigration on higher alert since the Madrid train bombings in March, the main stumbling block for Orellana's recruits is, as usual, securing a visa. Still, he has no desire to return to the life of a college assistant. "I'm in paradise," he says. "All I do is hoop. Hoop and go to the beach."

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