As the NBA Africa Game approaches (Saturday, 9 a.m. Eastern, ESPN), the NBA community arrives at a moment that is meaningful for reasons far beyond basketball.
This event is not about hoping to establish an NBA team on the continent. Making hoops a little more popular? Sure, a little… but that’s not the main point. This is more about outreach, creating a central event around which to highlight the philanthropy of the league and its best ambassadors to Africa, native sons Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Perhaps, one day in the very distant future, the NBA will expand to Europe or Mexico (though both possibilities seem quite remote in the present moment). The idea of expanding to Africa and becoming more commercially potent is not first on the NBA’s priority list. The focus of the league is something much more consequential.
Mutombo has been a distinguished and tireless leader on the philanthropic front, working to bring medical care and other vital services to Africans in acute need of them. Far beyond the realm of the high-publicity, low-impact photo-op, Mutombo has thrown himself into various development projects, and is currently immersed in fresh ones as we speak. This is his life’s work, and in many ways, this is what’s being spotlighted with the NBA Africa Game.
It should not be lost upon anyone that the host nation for the event is South Africa, not even a quarter of a century removed from Nelson Mandela’s rise to power. Mutombo does represent the NBA, but he far more powerfully represents a new generation of leadership, creative energy, and political will in the search to provide for his people. Mutombo hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and not South Africa, but in terms of global visibility, he is — at least in a certain sense — taking the torch from Mandela this weekend. Olajuwon is also (rightfully) a part of this event, given the bridges he’s built between Africa and the NBA through basketball. Before Mutombo made it big in the NBA, Olajuwon blazed the trail.
What does all this mean for the players who will take place in Saturday’s game in Johannesburg? For the first- and second-generation African players who will take the court, it’s going to be a profound experience. How profound will it be? That’s up to each player. However, in the moment, the simple reality of playing professional basketball with proven peers on African soil is going to mark a major milestone in the shared histories of both the NBA and the African continent, joined in an instant memory no one will ever forget. On this more immediate level, the NBA Africa Game owns a sweet and satisfying permanence.
What’s far more intriguing is how this event might affect these players in the long run.
Will this weekend inspire Gorgui Dieng or Bismack Biyombo to become the next Mutombo on a global philanthropic level once they retire from the NBA? Those kinds of seeds could be planted in this game. It will therefore be interesting to see what players have to say when this game is over, especially those from Team Africa.
As for Team World, comprised of relative outsiders to Africa, what will this game do? No, one should not expect this game to have any real impact on the coming regular season, but as a point of curiosity, there is one specific player I’m thinking about as the NBA Africa Game approaches: Chris Paul.
Well within the heart of his career (in other words, not merely at a point after his skills have long declined, but during the height of his prime as a player), Chris Paul has become a successful and dedicated philanthropist. He is one of the NBA’s best public citizens. Off the court in his personal ventures, he’s been everything one would want — and hope — an athlete to be.
Paul’s presence as an athlete who has walked the talk in terms of charitable giving and community involvement is rare. What’s also rare is that for all of his virtues as a person and his gifts as a player, Paul has been very much at the center of longstanding clashes with teammates and officials. Few players go to greater lengths to sell calls than Paul does, so his anger when a call doesn’t go his way becomes that much more noticeable (and off-putting). That’s chicken feed, though, compared to all the reports of friction between Paul and DeAndre Jordan, the kinds of clashes that made Jordan initially want to go to the Dallas Mavericks before he reconsidered.
Perhaps Paul shouldn’t connect this weekend in Africa to anything that happens within or among the Clippers. Perhaps nothing should be expected of Paul along those lines. Perhaps we should separate the real world of cutthroat basketball from the even more real world of global philanthropy, and not try to mix the two.
However, it is often true that a human person, expert in one realm of activity, gains a profound insight into that craft due to an event largely if not totally removed from his regular environment. An epiphany on a nature walk in a forest gives a writer the next great idea for a novel. An illness of a family member gives a politician a career-shaping source of inspiration for how to reform a part of the health care system.
What if, on this journey to Africa for something very much removed from the everyday workings of the Clippers, Chris Paul gains a revelation which helps him to become a better, more accepting teammate toward DeAndre Jordan?
It shouldn’t be expected. It shouldn’t be held against Paul if he doesn’t find that lightning bolt of new awareness based on this specific weekend in a foreign land. It shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of CP3 if this weekend doesn’t transform his life.
One’s merely asking: “What if this weekend does, somehow, become so much more meaningful than Paul bargained for?”
The answer COULD change the coming season.
That’s a point worth contemplating… as is the much more urgent issue of whether this game creates a new wave of philanthropist-leaders in the NBA.