NEW YORK — In midst of the uniquely hectic All-Star glitz, away from the competitions and the celebrations, meaningful basketball took place beneath the packed Manhattan streets.
In a literal sense, Basketball “Without Borders” was inaccurate. Division III Baruch College’s cramped underground gymnasium, little more than two courts both wide and long, offered barely enough room for 39 of the best teenage prospects from around the world just to stretch and warm up.
But the impact of the program, which has seen 33 camp alumni drafted and reached 120 different countries and territories, was apparent. Hosting its first-ever All-Star Weekend camp, Basketball Without Borders, co-operated by the NBA and FIBA, since 2011 offered a platform for players to receive NBA-level instruction and perform in front of a throng of league personnel.
All corners of the gym were filled with executives and scouts craning their necks to observe a hand-picked group of prospects. Though the talent gap between players was at times visibly large—take, for example, 7-foot Croatian starlet and camp MVP Dragan Bender, likely a future lottery pick, and put him against other bigs still learning to finish with their left hand—there was plenty to like, and plenty of opportunity to stick in observers’ memories.
“How many times do you get to see kids like this?” said Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, one of the camp’s directors. “We continue to watch them develop, and you see them in other tournaments, but to get them in places like this where you’re seeing them do skill development, it’s really good for scouts.”
NBA players Danilo Gallinari (Italy), Tiago Splitter (Brazil) and Gorgui Dieng (Senegal) were on hand throughout the three-day showcase to offer their wisdom. Dieng, himself a product of Basketball Without Borders, credited the program for helping him gain exposure and make the leap to the states. He addressed the campers on Saturday morning.
“I told them, through high school, college and even now, I never let anyone make a decision for me,” Dieng said. “I’ll ask around, ask groups, but I’ll never let anyone else make my decisions. I think that’s leadership.”
The camp underscored the increasingly global nature of All-Star weekend and the game at large, which has never been more apparent. Think Marc and Pau Gasol, the first two Europeans ever selected as starters by fans, jumping center in the main event. Giannis Antetokounmpo brought out a Greek flag at the dunk contest. In the Rising Stars Challenge, the World Team, which included Dieng, knocked off a team of Americans. Next year, the All-Star hoopla goes down in Toronto, its first-ever non-U.S. location.
An all-time high number of international media from 52 countries showed up in New York. Fans around the world could access the weekend’s events live in 47 different languages. But the weekend’s potentially most influential basketball went down behind closed doors. Campers were not made available for interviews, but the simple magnitude of what a strong showing could mean for their basketball future proved largely evident in their on-court attitudes.
“The opportunity is a reward for the very best young players,” Commissioner Adam Silver told the media at his press conference Saturday. “I think that advances the game, when they go home and other players hear about this incredible experience they’ve had.
“I think that makes it that much more likely that other young, great athletes will turn to basketball, and see what a fantastic opportunity it is to be involved with our community and be among the best at All-Star weekend.”