Hakeem Olajuwon, for all practical purposes, was the first, and he remains the best. Dikembe Mutombo was the next logical step, arriving in the NBA a basketball generation later (in 1991 to Olajuwon's '84). In between, Manute Bol was a fascinating tale, testing the upper bounds of height (7-foot-7) while bringing smiles to our faces by cracking wise, swatting shots or jacking up three-pointers.
The excitement and anticipation that came in their wake made sense. The potential for mining NBA talent in Africa seemed limitless. By 1994, the notion was so mainstreamed that Hollywood jumped aboard with The Air Up There, in which a college coach played by Kevin Bacon turns his recruiting efforts to the continent. A steady flow of African prospects, especially tall prospects, seemed a lot closer than six degrees of separation.
Yet here we are, all these years later, and what was envisioned as a flood has been more of a trickle. From three African-born players who reached the NBA in '89 or before, to nine who arrived in the '90s, to 12 who have begun their NBA careers since '00 (and in some cases, already ended them). Not bad. Encouraging even. But not what many folks expected, either, to still describe as promising what more than a decade ago figured to be called a trend.
Beyond the quantity, there's the quality issue, too. If you were to rank an all-Africa NBA Top 10, it might go something like this:
1. Olajuwon2. Mutombo3. Luol Deng4. Michael Olowokandi5. Bol6. DeSagana Diop7. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute8. Alaa Abdelnaby9. DJ Mbenga (hey, he won a championship ring this month)10. Yinka Dare
Technically, one of the top spots could go to Phoenix guard Steve Nash, since Canada's NBA hero and the two-time MVP was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, before his family migrated to British Columbia. Apologies might be in order, too, for Mouhammed Sene, Obinna Ekezie or Pape Sow, depending on your tastes and evaluations. But the point is clear: Africa has not produced an abundance of NBA players because the game there still isn't ready. UConn center Hasheem Thabeet, a native of Tanzania, is the continent's lone representative in this year's draft pool.
"It's slowly starting, where you see it grow," said Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors' assistant general manager, player personnel."But we're still a ways away to see the real potential, to see NBA players coming out of there."
Ujiri, born in Nigeria, is director of the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Africa program, a former player at Montana State who spent six seasons playing professionally in Europe. He is dedicated to growing the game back home, spending most of the offseason (after the Raptors' summer league obligations) in Africa and running two camps annually there.
"Right now it still is a process, where the players come [to the U.S.] for high school and college or they go through the pros in Europe. There still has to be the Hasheem Thabeets of the world, the DeSagana Diops. It's going to take time before it even gets to where facilities and coaching and competition have reached the level where NBA teams are confident drafting players [directly] from over there."
That process has worked well for those able to access it. Thabeet could be picked as high as No. 2 Thursday night after three seasons in the Big East. Chicago's Deng of the Sudan was the seventh player chosen in '04 after just one season at Duke and seemed headed toward All-Star status before facing contract pressures and injuries. Mbah a Moute, from Cameroon, exceeded Milwaukee's second-round expectations as an '08-09 rookie after his three years at UCLA.
But there are many other talented players who haven't gotten similar opportunities or earned them too late. Jokes about Mutombo finagling his age are to the NBA what tales of Latin American players' doctoring birth certificates are to baseball; as long as the pros want to snare prospects before they're too old, years will get shaved and erased. "Our job is to find players younger, where they are able to play from 11 years old and grow up playing the game," Ujiri said. "Rather than, you start playing when you are 17 or 18 and you don't get the opportunity to do anything with your career. That's when they start changing their ages -- they started late so they're trying to play catch-up."
The scarcity of gyms in many African countries, limited competition and rudimentary coaching have held basketball back. Ujiri recalled his second year of running camps, when he and Amadou Gallo Fall, the Dallas Mavericks' director of player personnel, rounded up an enticing crop of young big men for NBA scouts to see. There was just one small problem, literally so -- inferior coaching meant too few players able to deliver the ball. "The basketball was below average, because we had all these 6-10, 7-foot players, but they didn't have the skills," Ujiri said. "We decided we're going to encourage the guards so the basketball is balanced. You'd watch the camp games and there would be more blocked shots than made jumpers."
For Mutombo, even a little progress is a massive victory. Freshly retired, the '09 recipient of the NBA's J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award (and only two-time winner of the honor) has focused more on Africa's imports than its exports. Famous for his humanitarian efforts back home, Mutombo raised funds for, built and maintains a hospital in his native Congo and is more interested in the unlimited potential of African basketball players once they return, college degrees in hand.
"The education is a tool, you can always use it," he said in a phone interview last week. "It is a key of success, and we want them to succeed. There's life after basketball."
Mutombo estimated there are 185 young African players enrolled in colleges in America, with another 100 in high school here. "For me, someone who was born in Africa and was worrying about seeing an increase in basketball players, these are very good results," he said. "We have to make sure that they work very hard to reach the next level, which is the NBA."
Mutombo's right: The poverty, health issues and political strife in Africa dwarf any concerns that the NBA isn't reaping enough low-post players from the continent, even a quarter of a century after Olajuwon was the NBA's No. 1 draft pick (two spots ahead of Michael Jordan). And like a lot of things in life, timing matters.
"Hakeem and Mutombo, they came at the wrong time, in my opinion," Ujiri said. "At the time there was not much exposure. No Internet. Yeah, we knew the names but it's not like with Yao Ming now, it's not with like Manu Ginobili -- those guys have carried their continents. We don't have the caliber of players now to do that. Hakeem Olajuwon would have been unbelievable for our continent now, because a lot of kids would have seen him on TV. Mutombo, a lot of kids would have seen him in his prime."
It is on Thabeet, then, and Deng, Diop, Mbenga, Mbah a Moute and the rest to carry a torch that has flickered when it might have flamed.