Prodigies' Paradise A former U.S. college coach has migrated to the Canary Islands to develop African hoopsters

June 27, 2004

If you were an American coach looking to start a basketball
academy for young Africans, you couldn't ask for a better site
than Tenerife, a sun-bathed tourist mecca in Spain's Canary
Islands. Tenerife offers European amenities, good schools
and--most important--is a mere 200 miles from West Africa's hoops
hotbeds. Such was Rob Orellana's thinking when he left his job as
an assistant at Cal State-Fullerton last year and set up the
Arona Basket Sur Academy, named for the town in which it's
located. "As far as talent is concerned, these kids were
sprinkled with gold dust from God," says Orellana. "They just
don't have the opportunities. My dream would be to make this into
something like the IMG Basketball Academy in Florida."

Although the NBA and its top agents are putting boots on the
ground in Africa, Orellana argues that the continent won't
realize its full potential until NBA teams set up year-round
development academies the way major league baseball teams did in
the Caribbean during the 1970s. Unlike the leading European
clubs, which sign the young players they develop to contracts,
Arona is a strictly amateur operation, thus preserving U.S.
college eligibility for the 12- to 18-year-olds who come there.
"The thinking is to get them to the States," says Orellana, 39,
who recruited throughout West Africa as a college assistant. "But
if the kids are academically unable to get into college, then we
can get them to clubs all over Europe."

With the support of team president Eloy Garcia and financial
backing from civic sponsors, Arona combines the best of the
American and European systems, providing room and board,
high-level instruction, a daily training regimen (including
weights and two-a-day practices) and scholarships to a nearby
school. In his first year Orellana recruited two Senegalese
prospects, notably 14-year-old Pape Mamadou Samb, a 6'9" forward
from Dakar. He led tiny Arona to the Sweet 16 of Spain's
cadet-level tournament, where it fell by just two points to the
cadet-level team of mighty FC Barcelona--which immediately tried
to sign Samb. "Their recruiting coordinator told us he was the
best prospect he's seen in Spain since Pau Gasol," says Orellana.
He persuaded Samb to return to Tenerife, where he'll be joined
this fall by his 7'1" brother, 18-year-old Cheik; two guards from
the Republic of Georgia; a host of prospects from Senegal;
and--perhaps--Kene Obi.

With Spanish immigration on higher alert since the Madrid train
bombings in March, the main stumbling block for Orellana's
recruits is, as usual, securing a visa. Still, he has no desire
to return to the life of a college assistant. "I'm in paradise,"
he says. "All I do is hoop. Hoop and go to the beach." --G.W.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROYAL DAKAR DUO With the Samb brothers, Orellana can challenge the Europowers.