Continuing in the tradition of Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, Manute Bol of Sudan and Dikembe Mutombo of Zaire, Charles Mainah of Kenya could be the next African to achieve basketball stardom in the United States.
In one way or another. Mainah, 18, will costar opposite Kevin Bacon in the feature film The Air up There, slated for release in the summer of 1994. The film, directed by Paul Glaser, is a comedy that chronicles the adventures of Jimmy Dolan—played by Bacon—an assistant college basketball coach who, while watching a video taken by missionaries in a remote African village, notices a Winabi warrior named Saleh (Mainah) playing the game. With his sights set on a head coaching job, Dolan travels to Africa in search of what he believes is the ultimate recruit.
Before filming began, Mainah, 6'7" and 180 pounds, had never acted. And until he was flown to Los Angeles last November for a screen test, he had never been outside of Kenya. While, in L.A. he saw his first NBA game, a Laker overtime victory over the Chicago Bulls in which Michael Jordan scored 54 points. Former NBA great Bob McAdoo, technical adviser to The Air, took Mainah to the game.
"It's like a dream," Mainah said afterward. "You see Jordan and other players, and they're playing in a game. Then when time is running out, that's when you realize you're in L.A., you're watching the Lakers...."
Nearly 50 men had auditioned for the part of Saleh at a gym in Nairobi in early November. Konga Mbandu, a casting agent for Gorillas in the Mist and other films, lived in the same neighborhood as Mainah, but the two had never met. A friend told Mbandu about a kid who had won the 1991 Nairobi Slam Dunk championship. Mainah was that kid. When he heard that Mbandu was looking for him, Mainah appeared at the gym, where Mbandu videotaped him and a few other players as they ran basketball drills. Mbandu showed the tapes to Glaser, who was impressed with Mainah, and a week later Mainah, Peter Kiganya (also a Kenyan athlete) and Kevin White, an African-American actor, were screen-tested with Bacon in Los Angeles. Mainah won the part.
Just like that, Mainah, a former NBA player—that's the Nairobi Basketball Association—began to rethink his future. He had planned to study computer programming and accounting at the University of Nairobi, but the movie presented a chance to pursue basketball without displeasing his father, John Mainah, a civil servant who had always emphasized to his children the importance of education. John probably would not have been pleased if he had known that his son's audition had been held the same week as his high school final exams, which are used as college entrance exams in Kenya. Charles had decided not to tell his parents about the film audition, and they didn't find out his secret until two weeks later, when a producer telephoned the Mainah house to tell Charles that he was a finalist.
With his father's blessing, Mainah hopes his acting debut will lead to a college basketball scholarship in the U.S. Several athletes, including Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, have used sports celebrity to launch acting careers. Mainah could be the first to jump-start a sports career through his acting. But his basketball skills may need more work than his acting. Producer Robert Cort thinks that Mainah is a natural. Bacon agrees. "He's one of those people with a natural charm that's magic to a camera," he says. "It's great to work with someone like that. It forces a certain reality from you."
Away from the set McAdoo has been teaching Mainah certain realities of American basketball. "It was easy for him over in Africa," says the 41-year-old McAdoo, a five-time NBA All-Star. "He could block anybody's shot and get off a shot any time he wanted. He wouldn't get away with that here. By playing me one-on-one, he's seeing that, and he's catching on. Right now he's at the NCAA Division II level. Depending on his work ethic, he could play Division I."
Mainah seems keen on playing in the U.S. His exam results are due back this month. Even if he does well on the exams, he must wait nearly a year before he can attend college in Nairobi. By then trailers of the movie should be showing in theaters in the U.S. Perhaps, in the manner of Jimmy Dolan's discovering Saleh, a college coach might spot Mainah on a screen and make the journey to Africa to recruit him.