For African Players, Chasing Hoop Dreams Is a Risky Proposition

As more and more players cross the Atlantic to find stardom in the NBA, unscrupulous coaches and brokers are descending on—and in some cases, trafficking—unsuspecting teens with big aspirations.

A 60 Minutes report, "The African Basketball Trail" will air Sunday, March 29, 2020 on CBS at 7 p.m. ET and PT.

They stood at the makeshift podium atop the floor of Oracle Arena, cutting the familiar figure of the freshly minted sports champions, at once ecstatic, relieved, exhausted and slightly dazed by the occasion. The Raptors had just won the 2019 NBA title. And, as players, coaches and executives caressed the trophy and examined their gleaming reflections, it was another reminder: Just because you envision a crowning moment your entire life, it doesn’t mean it won’t kick your ass once it arrives.

Among the celebrants: Pascal Siakam, originally from Cameroon, who had just scored a team-high 26 points, cementing his status as an NBA star; Serge Ibaka, from the Republic of the Congo, who had put up 15 points of his own; and the team’s president, Masai Ujiri, who had grown up in Nigeria.

African basketball players looking to follow in footsteps of Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam face exploitation

This title didn’t just represent a soaring achievement for a team, a city and a country. It also represented a triumph for an entire continent. The swell of African basketball players coming to the United States is one of the great migratory waves in sports; and it shows no sign of crashing. There are currently more than a dozen NBA players who were born in Africa, including Siakam and 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid. And this doesn’t include the players—from Victor Oladipo to Giannis Antetokounmpo—one generation removed, born to African parents. In the 2019 NBA draft a record nine of the 60 players selected were born on the continent or to at least one parent who was.

Then there’s Tacko Fall. At 7'6" the native of Senegal is one of the tallest human beings on the planet. With an irresistible personality to match his irresistible name, he has a celebrity force field—and Instagram following—to compete with any All-Star. Tacko may toggle between the Celtics and their minor league team in Portland, Maine, but he wins fans wherever he goes and was even used as a prop by Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, who leaped over Fall, at February’s NBA slam dunk contest.

It is not just the pros. Teams at all levels—college and high school; men’s and women’s—are stocked with African players. The NBA has leaned into this, sending regular delegations to hold camps in Africa and recently teaming with corporate partners to launch the 12-team Basketball Africa League.

But as his African peers celebrated at Oracle Arena, Clifford Etadafimue, a 7'2" mountain of a man from Nigeria, watched the Finals in New Jersey. Or check that, he says, maybe it was Texas. Or was it Pennsylvania? He is forgiven for his hazy recollections because he was left homeless and has been wandering ever since he was recruited to come to the U.S. to play as a 17-year-old in 2015. Since the school he was attending closed down, he has lived in seven different states, including New Hampshire, where he was staying in a shelter and had several run ins with local law enforcement. He had gone to a public library to escape the cold and was unable to understand the commands barked by local police when they asked him to leave. He ended up being dragged to the ground by four officers and subdued with a Taser.

Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are two of the players with African ties whose journeys to the NBA have had happy endings.

With seven All-Star berths between them, Embiid and Antetokounmpo are two of the players with African ties whose journeys to the NBA have had happy endings.

He is a representative reminder: For all the basketball players from Africa who make it big, a much larger group comes to America, only to be victimized by corrupt coaches and recruiters motivated by a big payoff. A year-long 60 Minutes investigation, followed the Africa-to-U.S. basketball trail. The inescapable conclusion: It is littered with corrupt fly-by-night high schools and shadowy middlemen and academies that mislead families, run roughshod over immigration rules and sometimes commit federal crimes. Says Scott Rosner, professor of sports management at Columbia University, “It’s very much the Wild West.”

***

If you wanted to timestamp the precise year this African talent spigot was tapped, it was likely 1981. Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwon—an 18-year-old former soccer goalkeeper from Lagos, Nigeria, who had just picked up basketball a year earlier—was being pursued by various college teams. He arrived from Lagos to New York’s JFK Airport. After wending his way through immigration and picking up his bags, he began looking around for his ride. He had planned to meet a coach from St. John’s, but there had been a mix-up. Olajuwon exited the terminal, only to be confronted by a blast of cold air. Olajuwon returned inside, where he met a baggage handler who happened to come from Nigeria as well.

Olajuwon held tickets to the destinations on his recruiting trip: Louisville, Providence and Houston. After commiserating about the cold, Olajuwon asked his countryman which of the three cities would be the warmest. “Houston,” the man shrugged. So it was that Olajuwon ultimately wound up in Southeast Texas, where he went on to anchor Phi Slamma Jamma, twice lead the Houston Cougars to the NCAA final game, go on to star in the NBA, and become the lodestar for African basketball talent. Soon Dikembe Mutombo, from Democratic Republic of the Congo, was headed to Georgetown, shoe companies began sending scouts to Africa, and a pipeline was opened.

In 2014, another Nigerian basketball recruit arrived at JFK, only to experience a change of plans. Unlike Olajuwon’s, this rerouting was sinister. At age 15, Blessing Ejiofor stood 6'5", so tall she had to borrow shoes from a boyfriend just to play basketball on a playground in Okposi. But she’d been spotted at a basketball camp by a scout, who offered her a chance to come to the United States, attend school for free and pursue her basketball ambitions. Never having been out of Nigeria, Blessing was tantalized. All the more so when she went online and glimpsed the school she would be attending.

The Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte was, per its website, “a small independent institution grades K-12.” It looked to be a leafy, elegant campus. On the website, the predominant image was a stately Georgian-style domed building. “I was so excited,” Blessing recalls, “I am thinking, I can’t wait to get there.”

To get there, she would need an I-20/F-1 visa, a federal permission to study in the U.S. at a specific school. Evelyn Mack Academy was one of thousands of schools authorized by the government to grant this paperwork to foreign students.

Armed with a visa issued by the school, Blessing left her country with fully stuffed suitcases and comparably plump expectations. She would later learn that the stately domed building on the Evelyn Mack website was, in fact, an image of the Barker Engineering Library at MIT. But that was the least of the lies, as Blessing found out as soon as her flight landed.

After arriving at JFK and expecting to transfer to Charlotte, Blessing was intercepted by a coach wearing attire from East Side High School in Patterson, New Jersey. He instructed her to come with him. “I am like, O.K. I am supposed to be going to Evelyn Mack Academy,” she recalls. “‘Why is it East Side High School?

Blessing says the coach told her that there had been a mix-up and the host family in North Carolina was not ready to take her. She would be playing not for a small school in the Sun Belt but for his large public school in northern New Jersey. A stranger in a strange land just off her first flight—and by her own admission “so naïve”—Blessing followed him. “I mean,” she says, “I couldn’t have argued with him.”

Coaches at East Side had somehow obtained the rights to have Blessing play for the Ghosts rather than Evelyn Mack Academy. Blessing says she does not know exactly how. The likely explanation: Middlemen paid Evelyn Mack Academy to issue Blessing a visa so she could enter the United States, and when she arrived they rerouted her to the school of their choice. By attending a different school, Blessing was in violation of immigration rules and in the country illegally, but as a 15-year-old, she didn’t know it at the time. (Middlemen, coaches and legal guardians often ignore the rules of the U.S. I-20/F-1 visa, which requires a student to attend only the school that issues the visa. It is possible to change schools, but only if you follow the set guidelines, which rarely happens.)

It turned out East Side High was awash in dubiously recruited international athletes. While Blessing was placed to live with a female coach at the school and had a good experience, a year-long NJ Advance Media investigation would later reveal that some of the internationally recruited male athletes there were forced to live in dangerous and unstable apartments, including one above a drug user. And East Side was hardly the only school in the country bargaining for African athletic talent as if it were a commodity.

In 2016, Dan Hicks, a former New Mexico State basketball player, was accused of accepting payments for a high school he had set up called West Virginia Prep Academy in exchange for helping athletes compete for basketball and football scholarships. Though he had no background in education, Hicks promoted himself as headmaster, and though the school had yet to open he touted its “proud tradition of excellence.”

Hicks recruited rosters of players, some from Africa. But the school was nonexistent—no classes and no physical space. One of the recruits, Christian Mulumba, a young basketball player from the Congo, recounted to the local media: “No school, sleep on floor, no school, no basketball.” The boys had little food and were forced to sleep on the floor of a tiny, unfurnished apartment. It later fell to the city of Charleston to provide meals and lodging for the kids and arrange for them to leave West Virginia, with some returning home to Africa.

While under FBI investigation for the basketball scheme and for luring athletes from around the world to a bogus school, Hicks sold heroin to a law enforcement informant. At an apartment Hicks was renting, investigators found heroin he intended to distribute, nearly $5,000 in cash, three digital scales and three cellphones. Hicks pleaded guilty to distribution of heroin and making materially false statements to the FBI related to the basketball scheme and was sentenced by a federal judge to 18 months in prison. (Hicks did not respond to attempts by SI and 60 Minutes to contact him.)

Last summer, an Indianapolis man, Raymond Truitt, went to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to recruit boys to play basketball in U.S. schools. According to a probable-cause affidavit, Truitt told the mother of 6' 6", 15-year-old Nickens Paul Lemba that he would care for and educate her son. She turned over guardianship to Truitt; Truitt used the Rock Creek Community Academy in Sellersburg, Ind., to acquire an I-20/F-1 visa, but then enrolled the boy at a large public school, Southport High in Indianapolis. Truitt was later accused in the police affidavit of neglecting the boy by not providing for his basic needs and leaving him with other local families.

When one of those Indianapolis families stepped in to become Lemba’s guardians, Truitt allegedly refused to hand over the boy’s visa. Local media says Truitt also followed through on a threat to notify the Indiana High School Athletic Association, resulting in Lemba’s being ruled ineligible. On Dec. 13, 2019, Truitt was arrested and charged with one count of conversion and for allegedly neglecting a minor. A trial was scheduled for April 2020. (Neither Truitt nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.)

The motivation distills to one word: money. “Whenever money is involved,” says Tacko Fall, “there are going to be hiccups here and there.” Rosner puts it more forcefully: “It’s pure unbridled greed. . . . Ultimately, it’s the young person who’s being exploited. And it’s certainly off of their labor and their skill.”

One of the most popular players to emerge from Africa, Tacko Fall (in striped pants) was an effective prop for Aaron Gordon’s dunk.

One of the most popular players to emerge from Africa, the gregarious Fall (in striped pants) was an effective prop for Gordon’s dunk.

In some cases, it is coaches angling to field a winning team and move up the basketball org chart. In other cases, it is the windfall that comes—sometimes with support from shoe companies—with running a top-tier AAU program. Maybe above all, it is taking an early stake in a player, hoping to siphon a cut of their future earnings at a time when the average NBA salary is approaching $8 million. One middleman in the Midwest recruited two teenage basketball players from Africa and became their legal guardian. Once they arrived in the United States, he made the boys—who have since found new guardians and are playing in college—sign a contract entitling himself to 40% of their future earnings.

***

A former Charlotte police officer, Evelyn Mack housed her namesake academy in a low-slung building in a nondescript Queen City neighborhood. She had a limited background in education and many of the classes offered were online courses. Still, the academy applied for and received from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the power to issue I-20 visas.

ICE says the I-20 program relies on the schools to submit documents proving they are legitimate. “This is an honor system,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Smith of Charlotte, N.C., “ . . . the system works well.” But a review of ICE records shows that in North Carolina alone, hundreds of schools are deputized to issue I-20s, many with questionable corresponding addresses, such as private homes and churches.

At Evelyn Mack, there were only 50 students enrolled at any one time. So in when the Department of Homeland Security realized Mack had issued I-20s for more than 75 international athletes, suspicions were aroused, and the scheme unraveled quickly. Mack had been charging middlemen and coaches throughout the country $1,000 for an I-20. Most of the overseas athletes never made it to Mack, but were instead redirected to other schools just like Blessing Ejiofor.

In Charlotte, Smith charged Mack with conspiracy to harbor aliens. She would plead guilty to one charge, her school was shut down, and she was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Smith concedes that the 69-year-old Mack was hardly the mastermind of an international recruiting scheme. She was just a vital player. Says Smith: “There were basketball coaches. There were basketball recruiters. And they went to Evelyn Mack to use the authorization she had received from Homeland Security to get these students into the United States.”

The judge, however, wondered why the government wasn’t pursuing figures higher up on the chain—the coaches and middlemen who bought her visas. “She had a coconspirator on every one of these crimes. All 75 of them,” U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn said during sentencing. “I do not like that these coaches are not . . . being brought in.”

One name in particular surfaced in the Evelyn Mack court documents: Aris Hines. A former junior college basketball player in Oklahoma, Hines was involved as a coach and recruiter for the bogus West Virginia Prep Academy. (He purports to have been a force of good in that case, telling a local TV station he cooperated with investigators and was never charged criminally.) He then moved to North Carolina. He became an operator in youth basketball culture there and also became a legal guardian to players who came to the U.S. from Africa.

Hines initially agreed to an interview for this investigation, and 60 Minutes arranged for him to come to New York. An hour before the appointed time he canceled. Confronted outside his Manhattan hotel, Hines first claimed he had nothing to do with the Evelyn Mack Academy and then repeatedly proclaimed his innocence.

However, in open court during Evelyn Mack’s hearings, both the prosecution and defense referred to Hines by name, with Mack’s attorney saying, “These guys are really more so recruiters and to a certain extent, vultures. [Mack] had something that they wanted to be able to use.”

Hines also, according to police reports, used an Evelyn Mack I-20 visa to bring a 14-year-old Nigerian athlete to the U.S. Upon the player’s arrival, Hines allegedly used false custody documents to enroll him in a nearby North Carolina public school instead. When the boy sought to extricate himself from Hines’s control and seek new legal guardians, police reports say, Hines made threats by phone to the new guardians and the boy’s coach and later alerted authorities that the boy was here illegally. The high school he attended was forced to vacate its wins.

What’s more, multiple former Evelyn Mack basketball players from Africa interviewed for this story cite Hines as the figure who brought them to the U.S. Souleymane Doumbia, a 6'11" center from Ivory Coast, recalls that Hines promised him quality education, room and board, as well as the chance to play basketball. Instead, Doumbia says, he and other Evelyn Mack teammates were crowded into a small house while Hines lived hours away. The Evelyn Mack education was, essentially, optional. “He put me in a really bad situation,” says Doumbia, who now plays for a junior college in Texas. “I think he did me wrong.”

In fact, numerous players and families—from both the U.S. and abroad—have claimed Hines had mistreated and misled them, charging them as much as $9,000 in exchange for education and basketball opportunities, little of which materialized.

In the course of looking into Hines, investigators executed a search warrant on his residence. According to public records, they found business cards listing him as a head coach at Riverside Academy as well as a business bank account he set up in the name of the school, a small academy in Lumberton, N.C. According to school officials, Hines never worked there.

In 2016, Hines was charged with eight felony counts of obtaining property by false pretense; police reports say he took more than $27,000 from at least eight families of young athletes. For his alleged role in the case of the 14-year-old Nigerian athlete, Hines was separately charged with common law obstruction of justice and obtaining property by false pretense for what authorities described as a scheme to use a “custody arrangement that was fraudulent to get a young athlete into public school.”

New district attorneys were elected, and both of the North Carolina cases against Hines were later dropped. Hines moved to Texas. ICE investigators would not say whether they are investigating Aris Hines. In an email, Hines professed his innocence and attributed his situation to “the same old justice system conspiracy.”

Today, based in Killeen, Texas, Hines is still working with teenage basketball players. On a flier that pointedly does not use his first name, referring to him only as “A. Hines,” he advertises himself as an elite basketball coach. On a flier for an AAU team he appears to be establishing, he lists his experience at Riverside Academy. He also lists multiple players he has supposedly helped, including a player named Tyren Harrison, whose family accused Hines of taking $2,200 from them under false pretenses.

***

When Evelyn Mack Academy was shuttered as a result of the federal charges, the players scattered, and some went into free fall. Their visas now invalid, most of the foreign students were forced to leave the country. It’s a tableau Tacko Fall, who came to the U.S. from Senegal as a 16-year-old and was shuttled to a school that did not match the one on his visa, has seen before. “There’s been many times where I feel like some people have been taken advantage of where they bring them here then that’s it,” he says. “Then they’re just left for their own. And if things don’t work out, then they are pretty much screwed.”

After a star turn at East Side High, Blessing Ejiofor accepted a basketball scholarship to Vanderbilt. When she arrived on campus in the summer of 2016, she was told that her visa was out of status and she had to return to Nigeria to fix it. “I cried almost every day,” she says. “I was just miserable because I want to keep moving forward in life and I [didn’t] know what I was going to do at that point.”

After a wending journey, Ejiofor ended up in Morgantown, where she started 20 games for the 17–12 Mountaineers.

After a wending journey, Ejiofor ended up in Morgantown, where she started 20 games for the 17–12 Mountaineers.

After reapplying multiple times and losing a full year of practice, Blessing was finally granted a student visa to come back to the U.S. and is now a starter at West Virginia. Likewise, Souleymane Doumbia had to leave the U.S. and played overseas, including for a high school team in Thailand. He is now back in the U.S. and plays for Navarro College in Texas.

Other players lured to the U.S. on Evelyn Mack–issued visas have fared decidedly worse. Clifford Etadafimue, who was tased in New Hampshire, described how he pinballed around the U.S. after leaving North Carolina. Today, the 22-year-old lives in a group home and plays for an unaffiliated team in Jackson, Miss.

“We can look to the dozen or so players from Africa who are in the NBA. And those are the success stories. They’ve made it. And they should be lauded for doing so,” says Rosner. “But the really sad stories and the great tragedy are in the hundreds, the thousands, the vast majority who do not make it anywhere close to the NBA. And they’ve been sold on the dream that they can make it there. So then the question is, ‘What are they left with?’ And if they’re not left with an education, then they’ve truly been exploited in, really, the most horrible way.”

Who, ultimately, is looking out for these kids, who so often slip through the social and legal cracks? The answers are slow in coming. The I-20 system is designed to provide limited oversight of the schools that issue the visas, but after the visas are issued the bureaucracy to protect vulnerable foreign children does not appear to be in place. Some of the schools issuing I-20 visas and recruiting foreign athletes don’t have state-certified teachers, much less guidance counselors or mental health professionals or support systems. Such schools often fall outside the jurisdiction of state athletic associations. The players’ biological families are an ocean away. The legal guardians are often the same coaches or recruiters who are exploiting them. Fearful of losing their immigration status—thereby jeopardizing their hoop dreams—the young athletes can, understandably, be reluctant to go to authorities.

Another question, especially at a time when U.S. immigration is strenuously monitored, is how could fly-by-night schools like Evelyn Mack be vested with the authority to grant so many international visas? Pressed on this issue, a representative for ICE insisted the agency monitors complaints and checks up on the schools regularly, but admitted some schools were abusing the I-20 visa system. In a statement, ICE says it investigates suspicious situations, resulting “in both criminal and civil sanctions.”

While the NBA’s inroads in Africa have helped professionalize the basketball landscape in Africa and root out corrupt figures, there are undeniable elements of commerce and self-interest at play. Fall would like to take a leadership role as well. He’d like to regularly return to Africa—as he did last summer—to talk to players and their families about the realities, the promise and peril of the U.S. recruitment process. What would he tell a 16-year-old kid from Africa presented, as he was, with the opportunity to come to the U.S., and then forced to differentiate between forces of good and evil? “It’s hard. It’s hard to do,” he says. “Especially when you’re back home and people come and sell you a dream. It’s hard to turn it down.”

For now, the pipeline remains corroded. Within months of his release from prison, Dan Hicks got back into the recruiting game. He brought a pair of teenagers—7'2" Bol Kuir from South Sudan and 6'10" Gabriel Beny from Sudan—to West Virginia. He then attempted to enroll them in high school. Since the boys were not part of a formal student exchange and they lacked legally bound guardians, they were not eligible to play varsity sports. Hicks tried to close this loophole by petitioning to formally adopt the boys. While the status of his petition is unknown, the boys are currently living with Hicks. Which is to say: Two teenagers who came to the United States from Africa to chase their hoop dreams are in the care of a convicted heroin dealer who has already faced arrest for his role in a dubious sports recruiting scheme and housing players in squalor.

Special reporting by Cristina Gallotto.