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On Safari For 7-Footers With the NBA hunting for talent in Africa, a top prospect there must come to grips with a wild, new world of opportunity

June 28, 2004
June 28, 2004

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June 28, 2004

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On Safari For 7-Footers With the NBA hunting for talent in Africa, a top prospect there must come to grips with a wild, new world of opportunity

To find the most prized big man at the world's most remote
big-man camp, you have to take four flights, hop on a
pothole-weary bus and light out through the desert of northern
Nigeria, past bright-red flame trees and mud-brick huts, past
giant anthills and emaciated cattle, past Muslim villages where
women in multihued boubous draw water from the community well,
until you come upon an astonishing sight: a Hoosiers-style
gymnasium, rising from the scrub in the town of Zaria. Inside,
as daylight fades on an April afternoon, former Michigan coach
Brian Ellerbe is running 16-year-old Kenechukwu (Kene) Obi, an
impossibly long 7'1", 240-pound Nigerian, through the Mikan
drill. "Left leg up!" Ellerbe bellows.

This is an article from the June 28, 2004 issue Original Layout

The drill, a series of alternating left-and righthanded layups,
is a staple of most junior high practices. But for Kene, who
picked up a basketball for the first time just over a year ago,
Ellerbe might as well be teaching him the tango. Before long,
though, Kene masters the footwork. His eagerness to learn, to
make full use of a frame that has earned him the nickname Agwo.
(snake in Igbo, his native tongue) is palpable. "Right leg up!"
Ellerbe says. "There you go. Put it right up on the square.
There!"

Surveying Kene and the 27 other gangly teens in identical
powder-blue jerseys, all at least 6'8", you can understand why
American coaches view Africa--particularly Nigeria, the
continent's most populous nation--as the next step in the sport's
manifest destiny. "There's a lot of physical talent here, but we
lack coaching and facilities," says Masai Ujiri, a U.S.-based
Denver Nuggets scout from Nigeria who helped organize the camp.
"I want more people to come here and develop the continent
because it's the next big thing in world basketball, just like
Europe was 15 years ago."

It's starting to happen. Last September, Kene spent six
life-changing days in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the NBA's
inaugural Africa 100 Camp, the league's first effort at player
development on the continent. Despite Kene's rough edges, he drew
the attention of Bill Duffy, the superagent whose international
clientele includes Yao Ming, Steve Nash and Rasho Nesterovic.
Already established in Europe and China, Duffy is setting his
sights on Africa, which he views as the most fertile new ground
on the planet for basketball players.

"Obi was by far the best prospect there," Duffy says. "He can
touch the rim on his tiptoes, he can shoot jump hooks, he's got
nice hands, and he can run. I think there are a couple of hundred
guys in Africa who could be NBA stars, kids 12 or 13 years old
right now, and he's a case study: Can we take somebody from
scratch and develop him? If we do that for four years, by the
time he's 19 or 20, he could be the first pick in the NBA draft."

Nigeria is at the leading edge of a changing world in which the
NBA and its top agents are investing more time and money in more
places searching for precious resources (read: 7-footers). These
prospects are gradually becoming more accessible--every player in
Nigeria will offer you his e-mail address--and are more readily
cultivated than they were just a decade ago, thanks to the rising
number of options they have worldwide. Should Kene and his fellow
campers try the American school system, which offers a free
education to go with his basketball training (but limits their
practice time)? Or should they opt for the European apprentice
system, which places no bounds on the hours players can spend
with their coach (but often binds them to brutally long
contracts)?

For Kene the speed and scope of the process has been
mind-blowing. Suddenly a shy schoolboy from dusty Enugu had
American friends in very high places. UConn assistant coach Clyde
Vaughan had identified Kene as a potential Huskies recruit and
helped broker his admission, including a full-ride scholarship,
to the prestigious South Kent (Conn.) Prep School, a rising hoops
powerhouse. When it came time to apply for a U.S. visa in May
2003, his supporting documents included a letter from
Connecticut's Senator Joseph Lieberman--written as a favor to
Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. Kenechukwu Obi was on the verge of
realizing every Nigerian hoopster's dream: to get out of his
country.

But the forces of globalization aren't always in sync. Post-9/11
security concerns have made emigration more difficult, and not
even Lieberman's support was sufficient to secure Kene's visa.
Throw in a host of other obstacles--a trans-Atlantic turf war, a
Nigerian Svengali and prowling street agents whose aggressive
tactics drove Kene from the courts in Lagos--and Kene barely
played basketball in the seven months between the camps in South
Africa and Zaria. "I just don't know how much the kid has
worked," says Ujiri, shaking his head. "Physically he's gifted,
and he went to South Africa and progressed by the day. Then he
comes back here and there's no progress."

Noontime in Enugu, eastern Nigeria. The dirt streets of the Achara
neighborhood are clogged with kids, animals, sanitation trucks.
In a small apartment overlooking a rusting Peugeot on blocks,
Godwin Sunday Obi, a 64-year-old retired school principal,
welcomes his visitors in the Igbo tradition: with cola fruit,
peanut paste and a prayer. "Come here," he says, walking past
family portraits and a wall covered with religious slogans: TO
KNEEL IS TO WIN. JESUS CAN SET YOU FREE. GOD WORKS WONDERS. Next
to the doorway is a winding trail of hash marks that stops seven
feet, one inch above the floor. "When Kenechukwu was little, I
started measuring him," says Godwin. "After three months I did it
again, and then again. Finally I had to stand on a chair. Now he
may be the tallest man in Enugu State!"

Kene smiles sheepishly. "People are always making fun of me
because I'm too tall."

"But you've been blessed," his father says. "People have come
from all over the world to nowhere to see you. Use it proudly!"

Kene, the oldest of Godwin's five children with his second wife,
Catherine, inherited his height not from his father and
mother--who stand 5'10" and 5'8", respectively--but from his
maternal grandfather, Okomkwo Ngwu, a 7-footer. Like many
Nigerian kids, Kene is a fan of R. Kelly and Kevin Garnett, and
he likes studying economics, the subject his dad once taught. He
is also meticulous to an extreme, using his schoolmarm penmanship
to log the address of everyone he meets and hand washing his
white NBA socks, AFRICA 100 T-shirt and ATLANTA HAWKS sweatpants
after every use. (He hangs them to dry only in places where he
knows they won't be stolen.)

It's hard to say how Kene will handle the shock of moving abroad;
the big-man camp in Zaria was his first trip to northern Nigeria.
He can be too gentle, too trusting, and his confidence wavers. In
one breath Kene embraces the chance to leave Nigeria ("I know it
will be hard, but basketball is my future"), while in the next he
disses his game ("To me I'm not good. But they say I'm good").
Shy with strangers, he flashes a sly sense of humor around those
who've spent time with him. Asked one day if there are any fat
people in Nigeria, he says, "No. Ugo is the only one."

Ugo Udezue, an affable 26-year-old Nigerian who played at
Wyoming, is the African basketball director for Duffy's BDA
Sports and Kene's informal adviser. When their relationship
began, Udezue knew that college basketball would be an option for
Kene only if he did not sign with an agent. "I could have Kene
under contract right now, and I don't," Udezue says. Still, he's
performing agentlike tasks, keeping tabs on Kene from his Laurel,
Md., base, seeking to place him in the right situation abroad and
steering him clear of crooked Nigerian suitors: There's a reason,
after all, why Colin Powell once called Nigeria "a nation of
scammers." Last year Udezue warned Kene not to play at the
National Stadium courts in Lagos after one street agent there
offered him a plane ticket, a fake visa and a contract with a
team in Lithuania--but only if Kene left for the airport that
moment without telling his parents.

Udezue could arrange an eight-year deal for Kene with a European
pro team tomorrow, or he could place him in a forward-thinking
basketball academy in Spain's Canary Islands (below). Primarily
though, Udezue has been seeking a mid-level European club willing
to exchange the publicity Kene would bring for a year or two of
free instruction while he finishes high school. Clearly, such
thinking flies in the face of the European system: What incentive
does a team have to develop a player if it can't sign him and
profit from a buyout if he eventually reaches the NBA?

It certainly would have been easier had Kene been granted a U.S.
visa last year. Though the State Department refuses to comment,
South Kent Prep coach Raphael Chillious says a consulate official
told him it believed Kene was older than his stated age. Indeed,
fraud is so pervasive in Nigeria that deceit is often assumed.
"If a player goes to the Embassy with a fake birth certificate
and gets found out, the interviewer is going to have a grudge
against any player who comes in," says Udezue. "We have to find a
way to make them trust us, because a lot of kids are being left
behind."

Toyin Sonoiki leans forward, eyes wide, and jabs his index finger
into the table. "Ugo is living in a dream world!" he bellows. A
former national-team coach, lawyer and owner-coach of the Lagos
Islanders semipro team, the 45-year-old Sonoiki--everyone calls
him Noik--is the prime mover in Nigerian basketball. With his
round face and abbreviated mustache, he looks like a cross
between Nolan Richardson and der Fuhrer. "Ugo is looking for a
situation where Kenechukwu goes to Europe without a contract? And
somebody should want to develop him?" Sonoiki asks. "Ugo should
jump in a coffin! It won't happen. Kenechukwu is a late starter.
On an athletic scholarship in America, kids can play only 20
hours a week, four months a year. In Europe the kids are
practicing with coaches twice a day, 365 days a year. That's what
he needs! Yes, you sign contracts that are not very palatable.
But that's the system."

There was a time when Udezue and Noik were the closest of
friends. In the mid-1990s, when Udezue decided to pursue a
basketball career, he moved into Noik's spacious Lagos house,
starred on his Islanders team and (through Noik's connections)
secured a visa to attend high school in the U.S. "He is the best
basketball mind here, and he is a good coach," says Udezue, one
of four dozen players Noik has helped send to the U.S. over the
past decade. "If Kene had been with him for the past year, he
would be something else right now. But Noik comes with a price we
can't afford."

Sonoiki has a reputation as a scheming Svengali who profits from
Nigerian players when they sign lengthy deals with his sketchy
Eastern European contacts. Though Kene's family says Noik never
had permission to pursue any opportunities for their son, that
didn't keep him from negotiating a deal for Kene with a Greek pro
team last year. (The Obis declined the offer.) Likewise, the
parent of a player at Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg,
Fla., says he gave Noik $2,500 for "transportation and visa
costs" in June 2003 after Noik claimed to be Kene's guardian and
promised to deliver him to the school. "He described him as this
7'1" wonder kid," says Tommy Lampley, an AAU coach whose son,
also named Tommy, was the captain of Farragut's state champion
team last spring. "I'm salivating. So I ask, 'What would it take
to get him to Farragut?' Without hesitation he said $2,500."

According to Lampley, Sonoiki was certified as reputable by a
coaching contact, so he wired him the money. Soon afterward,
Lampley says, all communication with Noik stopped. (Sonoiki
claims the money went toward a nonrefundable plane ticket for
Kene to Florida that was never used.)

Of course, Kene claims he didn't know then that Sonoiki was
passing himself off to American schools as his guardian, never
knew he was taking money in his name. Mention Noik around Kene
these days and his fear is obvious. Whatever happened with Kene,
independent observers acknowledge that Noik's decision to wheel
and deal in the largely unregulated global marketplace has
tarnished his reputation as a builder of talent. "I wish I could
go back to the days when I'd come to the National Stadium, and
Noik would be sitting in a chair, and all the kids would be
working their asses off," Ujiri says. "Noik then was not so aware
of the dealing world. It was more in the best interests of the
kids. Kene would be perfect in that situation. Unfortunately, I
don't think it can be like that again."

Nor should it be, Noik says. "Why should I work with kids and
watch other people who have done nothing with them come and take
them into situations for their own benefit?" he says, his voice
rising. In other words, it comes down to turf. Noik's message is
simple: Duffy can send his minions to Nigeria, but I'll be damned
if I give up my stake without a fight.

Suddenly, the power at the Lagos Sheraton goes out. Nigeria is
the world's sixth-biggest oil producer, a resource-rich West
African giant with 150 million people, and yet every night the
electricity fails with head-scratching regularity.

In the pitch black, Noik keeps talking as if nothing has
happened.

On Kene's last day at the big-man camp in Zaria, the coaches
separate the top 10 players and have them play short games of
three-on-three. Kene is the youngest camper chosen, and it shows.
He doesn't demand the ball or initiate any moves--it takes a leap
of imagination to envision him on the same court with Shaq--but
he blocks a few shots, grabs some rebounds and sticks a putback.

It's nothing special, but the mere fact that Obi is competing
after his seven-month layoff is a major victory. Nobody thinks
it's too late for Kene to develop into an NBA prospect--not
Ellerbe, not Ujiri, not even Noik. The lingering question is
where that growth will take place. Will it be the Canary Islands,
where former U.S. college coach Rob Orellana has agreed to admit
Kene, scholarship included? Or will it be Norway, where big-man
camp attendee Will Voigt, the American coach of the professional
Ulriken Eagles, has consented to work with Kene and even found
him an Igbo-speaking host family? If the right visa were to come
through, either place would meet Udezue's goal of not tying Kene
down to a long-term pro contract, and the Canary Islands option
would allow Kene to retain his college eligibility. (Duffy would
have to cover Kene's living expenses in Norway, thus foreclosing
the college route.)

As of Sunday, Kene was still in limbo, staying with a friend of
Udezue's in Senegal and waiting to interview for a Spanish visa.
If it isn't granted, he'll spend the summer in Lagos living with
his aunt and uncle and suiting up in the Nigerian league for
Dodan Warriors, the archrival of Noik's Islanders. "He needs to
play," says Warriors coach Alex Owoicho. "In Enugu they don't
play a lot of games, but in Lagos we play a lot. He's going to
have a chance to play for three months nonstop."

A chance. It's all that Kene wants. That's why he keeps working
with Udezue despite all the setbacks, why he's out here on the
basketball court at Ugo's hotel in Enugu on a hot Saturday
afternoon in April. Surrounded by a grove of cashew and mango
trees, Udezue runs Kene through jump hooks, free throws, spin
moves and the Mikan drill before going over one last thing. "Now
you're going to take a dribble and do a jump stop," he says.
"Most big guys on the break go to the rack, but if you just stop,
you can do this." Udezue demonstrates, stopping and leaning to
his right as he jumps to get off the shot. To his surprise, Kene
gets it right the first time.

"Good job, Kene! Now do one more.... "

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB STRETCH DRIVE For 16-year-old Kene, workouts in Lagos and pickup games at Nigeria's National Stadium prepare him for a career abroad.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB HOME ECONOMICS With offers to choose from, the outlook has improved for Kene and his parents in Enugu.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RACHEL COBB BIG MEN Noik (left) would like to hold sway over Kene (above, center) and the other hot prospects at Zaria.

NEXT WEEK Why do some sports fail to translate easily into other
cultures? A look at the challenges facing MLS and NFL Europe.

"Can we take somebody from scratch and develop him?" says Duffy.
"If we do that, by the time he's 19 or 20, he could be the first
pick in the NBA draft."
"On scholarship in America, kids can play only 20 hours a week,"
Noik says. "In Europe they are practicing with coaches twice a
day, 365 days a year."