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NBA Africa Honors Nelson Mandela, Illuminating The Power Of Sport

The NBA returned to South Africa for the third NBA Africa Game today, with Team World edging Team Africa 96-92 at Gaat Sun Arena at Time Square in Pretoria. Joel Embiid scored 24 points and snagged eight rebounds for Team Africa, while Danilo Gallinari took home MVP honors with his 23 points on 9 of 10 shooting for Team World.

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@JoelEmbiid gets fancy with it! #NBAAfricaGame https://t.co/ejXjhipobV

But the event was about much more than basketball.

The game was played in support of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, with Team Africa being comprised of players born in Africa or with direct family ties to the continent, while Team World featured players drawn from the rest of the world.

There are more than 80 current and former NBA players from Africa or with direct family ties to the continent. 

Throughout the week, players and coaches honored the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his centenary by building new homes for children and families in need, and teaching the continents youth about HIV/AIDS prevention, leadership, character development and gender equity. 

In July, Barack Obama delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture commemorating the former South African President on what would have been his 100th birthday.

President Obama delivers the Nelson Mandela Lecture in South Africa

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 There have now been 54 Basketball Without Borders camps in 27 countries on six continents. Over the years, 55 participants in the BWB have been selected in the NBA Draft, with 10 from Africa. BWB alumni participating in this year’s game included Embiid, Gallinari, Ian Mahinmi and Bismack Biyombo.

At the 16th Basketball Without Borders Africa camp earlier this week, which showcased 78 of the top boys and girls from 29 African countries, the importance of the current players mentoring Africa’s emerging young talent was not lost on the Milwaukee Bucks’ Kris Middleton.

“This isn’t a job for us,” Middleton said of his willingness to assist with the program that officially “embodies Nelson Mandela’s’ legacy and belief that sport can inspire and change the world. Each and every one of us has been through something. We’ve been scouted, we’ve been around NBA players, NBA cultures that’s helped us get to that next level, so it’s very nice to be in a position where I can do the same. We have to give back. We have to try to grow the game. We have to try to make the game better than it was when we came in … it’s a great job to have to try to spread the game, to spread joy, to help anybody out.”

“Looking at these kids and knowing that one of them could be the next Thon Maker or Giannis Antetokounmpo [Bucks teammates whose parents are from Africa] is great,” Middleton said.

Last year, Kristaps Porzingis, Courtney Lee, Andre Drummond and DeMarcus Cousins led Team world to a 108-97 victory in the event, with Team Africa’s Victor Oladipo, who emerged as a superstar this year with the Indiana Pacers, winning Manute Bol MVP honors with his 28 points, nine rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block.

And next summer, the world’s best basketball player might be making his hoops debut on African soil.

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TeamWORLD holds on to defeat #TeamAFRICA 96-92 in the 2018 #NBAAfricaGame! @JoelEmbiid: 24 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists @gallinari8888: 23 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists

According to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James has expressed an interest in playing at the NBA Africa game in the future.

Silver, speaking in Johannesburg to assembled media today prior to the game, said in response to questions about James’ intentions: “The way the Africa game works is that the players who come are volunteers. … They ask to come. Both Amadou [Gallo Fall, NBA managing director for Africa] and I have spoken directly to LeBron James, and he has stated that he would very much like to come to Africa and be part of the game.”

“I know it’s high on his list of priorities. I don’t want to put undue pressure on him, but I’m sure that at some point he will make the trip.”

Silver also said that Michael Jordan was also interested in attending a future game, much like legends Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have done.

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Legends of the game. @kaj33 x @officialmutombo. #NBAAfricaGame

“Michael Jordan is someone we have talked to as well, and he is fascinated by the growth of the NBA business in Africa,” said Silver.

The commissioner also announced that the league is putting plans in place to launch a tournament across the African continent.

“When we were at the Mandela Centre of Memory [on Friday], we were reminded of his often repeated quote that sport has the power to change the world, and my addendum to that quote, having read much about President Mandela, was that sport is an economic engine,” said Silver.

“One of the opportunities we’re exploring is the development of a Pan-African basketball league,” he continued. “It’s still in its very early stages; the arena infrastructure is not yet in place to support a full-fledged league. But as we look out over the next decade, over the continent, at the economic development, the number of strong economies, the increasing interest in basketball, we think there is a real opportunity to do something like that.”

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***

Earlier this week, I had a chance to speak with Joel Embiid via an NBA conference call from South Africa. While most of the others on the call were interested in asking him about LeBron’s move to the Western Conference, LeBron not coming to Philly, his love of soccer of the Sixers front office mess with Bryan Colangelo, I wanted to hear more about this growth and experiences, being back in Africa, his own memories as a young player in the Basketball without Borders camp and his reflections on how Nelson Mandela utilized to power of sports to bring people together.

Here’s some of what he had to say.

Q. Talk a little bit about your first experience with Basketball Without Borders back in 2011. What that experience meant to you, how it shaped your vision for the future. Just the importance of it.

JOEL EMBIID: It was great. Back in 2011, I was kind of kind of shy. I wasn’t as good because that was the year also when I started playing basketball. Just being here, being around other guys that were obviously much better than me, it was tough. I was shy. 

By the end of the weekend, I felt comfortable. I had a great time. I ended up kind of showing my potential. I got a scholarship to come to the States. Other than that, I had a lot of fun with all the other guys. The coaches and everyone, they were all fun to be around.

Q. Coming to an event like this, does it bring back a nostalgic vibe? Is it a more fun weekend than most? Do you enjoy it for what it is?

JOEL EMBIID: Yeah, it’s fun for me. I think as long as God allows me, as long as my schedule allows me, that’s something I want to do every year, just to come back and give back. When I was in that situation, I felt great being among NBA players. I wanted to learn from them. I wanted to touch them because I was so amazed by them. I feel like me now being in this situation, I feel they also feel that way. I feel that’s a way for me to kind of give back and show them how it’s done. 

At the same time, it’s also a way for me to grow the game of basketball in Africa. I feel like we have a lot of talent, undiscovered talent, that can have a chance just like I did. They just need an opportunity. It’s great. I enjoy. It’s really fun for me being among the kids, being able to walk out with all the other NBA guys.

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Q. A lot of great players have come from Africa before. In today’s age with social media, with how available the NBA is, how available its players are to everyone around the world, do you think you maybe have a little more impact on being able to get kids interested in basketball who otherwise wouldn’t have been?

JOEL EMBIID: I don’t know. I don’t think that question is for me to answer. But I can kind of say I’ve had guys come up to me or tell me they love and they enjoy everything I do on social media. I feel like that has an impact. Pretty close to Mo Bamba as he is coming into the league. He wants to really model everything after me, which is great. I appreciate it. 

At the same time, if you don’t have it, you don’t have it. You have to have some sense of humor. You have to be funny in some ways. You have to have something. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it. I’m not the only one who changed the perspective on social media. I have fun on it, express yourself. Obviously, I’m one of the main guys. I’m sure there’s also a lot of guys out there. I’ve always viewed social media as a way to express myself. I don’t back down from anybody. I say what I want. I have a voice. I feel like people listen, and I appreciate that. I’m just going to keep being myself and just do what I’ve been doing.

Q. Part of this NBA Africa Game is honoring the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who really understood the power of sports to impact society. Talk about what his example kind of means to you and just how important it is for you guys to honor his legacy, kind of keep moving forward some of his thoughts and visions around bringing people together.

JOEL EMBIID: Oh, he did a lot. His vision, he sacrificed himself. Sports helps a lot. I feel like sports brings a lot of people together. I would take the example of the World Cup in soccer. When you talk about the World Cup, I think that’s probably the most watched event probably on the planet because soccer is so big. You just see the excitement. I’m a huge soccer fan. A lot of people don’t understand it, but just watching every game, the intensity, the fun that the people have. That’s all sports. 

If you hated somebody and you are supporting the same team, you have to come together. Support the same team so they can win it all. He did a lot of great things, which I appreciate a lot. Sports, his vision was always about — not always, but part of it was also about sports. Now me being in that position, I’m in a position where I’m able to give back. I have to give back because of the people that paved the way for us.

***

Former NBA champion Harrison Barnes, who’s now with the Dallas Mavericks, also had some great things to say about the experience.

Q. Have you been to South Africa before, and either way, I was wondering if you could sort of put into words what it means to you to play in this event.

HARRISON BARNES: This is actually my first time being in South Africa, first time being in Johannesburg, and it’s been just a great experience for me to take in the culture, to work with the kids today. We had a chance to get on the court with them, and then to do some life skills activities with them and just to see the culture, whether it’s dancing, singing, playing games, these kids have so much passion and fire in their eyes. 

It really makes me appreciate the game of basketball that has been able to take me all across the world, that I’m here able to spread the game of basketball, but at the same time, as well, it’s been able to bring together a lot of people from a lot of different places. 

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Q. As part of this you’ve also done a lot of community work, including winning the [Al] Attles Community Impact Award and helping with underserved people, etc. Could you talk a little bit about your personal efforts and how those might be linked to this one? 

HARRISON BARNES: Yeah, you know, I’ve been very fortunate throughout my life with a number of opportunities, a number of great people that have helped me be in the position that I am today to be an NBA basketball player and to be living out my dream. For me, the biggest thing I want to try to do is give back to the next generation, whether that’s advice, whether that’s opportunities, a lot of things that I focused on in Dallas and in the States is focusing on education primarily, literacy, and underserved and underrepresented communities. That’s one thing I feel very passionate about. 

But just to be able to come overseas and to be able to help people out, be able to give kids a hope and let them know that just because we’re standing here as NBA players or on this platform or on this stage, we’re just like you guys. We were all in the same situations that you guys were. We were kids with goals and dreams, and we got there through a lot of hard work, but we also got there through a lot of people helping us get to that point and some lucky breaks in there. 

What we want to try to do and what I try to do is just let these kids know that, look, I’m a resource, I’m here to try to help. I want you guys to be the most successful versions, the best versions of yourselves that you can be, and anything I can do, I’ll try to help.

Q. Basketball Without Borders has done a lot for promoting basketball internationally. In your words, what makes it so important that basketball is an international sport and that the NBA helps develop it and makes sure it grows across the world?

HARRISON BARNES: Yeah, I mean, I think Basketball Without Borders is huge just because of the platform that basketball is. I mean, the game is on fire right now, just expanding overseas and just globally, and I believe that coming here and doing a basketball camp, that’s good, that’s great. I think it has an impact on the kids. 

But the fact that we’re able to make a donation to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and learn more about the work they’re doing here in the community, to be able to go out tomorrow with Habitat For Humanity and literally help build 10 homes with brick and mortar and actually get out there in the community and get involved, I think that’s what makes Basketball Without Borders so much different than just a normal basketball camp is because we’re actually able to experience and have an impact on these kids in more than just an on-the-court way.

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