Nigerians: The Next Big NBA Draft Trend?

Was the 2010 NBA Draft the year of the Nigerians? Nigerians make in-roads in the NBA, a phenomenon decades in the making.

When we think about the international talent of the NBA Draft, the image in our head are skinny and lanky Europeans with multisyllabic last names that can be challenging to pronounce.  Either that or we conjure up images of some of the past decades greatest draft busts in Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, or Yaroslov Korolev.  But in this past draft, the there was not one European player drafted in the lottery.  In fact, there were almost as many players of Nigerian descent (if not hailing from Nigeria altogether), 4, as there were European players total, 6. 

In drafting Ekpe Udoh, the Warriors picked a player whose parents hailed from Nigeria.  Two picks later, a direct descendant of Nigerian royalty in Al-Farouq Aminu, whose parents also immigrated to the United States, was picked by the Warriors-south, the Los Angeles Clippers.  Other Nigerian players drafted included Gani Lawal (No. 46) and Solomon Alabi (No. 50) to the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, respectively.  I knew that Nigeria and Senegal have consistently produced shot-blocking studs for some time.  But does the 2010 draft tell us about the shifting power of international scouting if the Nigerian talent pool is almost surpassing Europe?  How are Nigerians suddenly showing up more and more so on the NBA radar? 

In an in-depth investigation of the process of importing Nigerian basketball players to the United States, Washington Post staff writer Eli Saslow uncovers how the NBA has continuously had their eye on the African talent pool as much as African youth have had their eyes set on the United States as a destination by which to find better opportunities than their home countries.

Smith, 64, hardly is alone in his pursuit of Nigerian teenagers as a valuable commodities. High school and college coaches, NBA scouts, would-be agents and representatives of basketball recruiting services regularly travel to Nigeria in hopes of discovering a unique talent that could transform their careers, make them rich, or both. The industry is fueled by Nigerian players desperate to escape a country where basketball stars make less than $50 a month. They post classified ads on Internet basketball sites, accompanied by pictures meant to highlight their height. They e-mail middlemen such as Smith and beg, essentially, to be taken advantage of.

"We're still trying to get a handle on all of the people we should be wary of," said Kim Bohuny, NBA vice president in charge of international operations. "We want to make sure these players are surrounded by people looking out for their well-being and education, not money. We're trying to get control of it, but it's always a struggle."

Saslow shows that the transition of local boy turned superstar hardly follows Hakeem Olajuwan's tale.  Nor is it the happy ending of the 1994 flick "The Air Up There" starring Kevin Bacon.

In an SLAM ONLINE interview with Amadou Gallo Fall, a former Director of Player Personnel and VP of International Affairs for the Dallas Mavericks now directing the NBA's efforts in Africa, Fall similarly describes the benefits of such programs as "NBA Cares" and "Basketball without Borders" for the NBA and the sponsors that they're indebted to:

SLAM: You have several marketing partners, such as Nike and EA Sports. Can you explain a couple of their endeavors?
AF: For example, our partners in Basketball without Borders, we've continued to value their support. We're looking to engage with Adidas and Spalding to get more involved on the continent and in grassroots initiatives. Our marketing partners are also excited about the opportunity because obviously as we stayed engaged and roll out more programs, their business is going to grow along with it.

SLAM: Are there any specific details? Will companies expose their brand on banners at events or by other means?
AF: They're global partners, so we treat them the same way the NBA does at All-Star Weekend and at our other events. Their presence will be felt.

As SLAM ONLINE tries to get into more depth on what kind of financial benefits the NBA and their sponsors may reap from their participation in what NBA commissioner David Stern has called ‘social responsibility,' Fall makes transparent that the "business" of corporations, like the NBA, "is going to grow along" with these youth. Yet, when pressured further by SLAM ONLINE about to what extent their "brands" will be visible through signage at these community service events, Fall's answers are brief, perhaps trying to deflect the attention away from the business side of corporate service-work. 

These NBA programs of international reach extend across the globe to find the next great product to star in the biggest basketball stage in the world.  These seemingly benevolent programs of social responsibility are loaded with extra-"community work" motives of scouting with the hopes of the big bucks to be made somewhere.  2010 NBA Draftee Solomon Alabi is one such player ‘discovered' at a "Basketball Without Borders" event. 

But this doesn't account for people like Udoh, Aminu, and Lawal, second generation Nigerian Americans that grew up in the playgrounds, cities, and suburbs of the United States.  While there is no clear reason why there is a sudden swell in players of Nigerian descent in the NBA, perhaps it's the fact that Nigeria leads all other African countries in immigration to the United States.  Nigerians, allegedly, have the highest educational attainment of any immigrant group in the United States.  And at top-ranked universities across the country, such as University of California, Berkeley and Harvard, immigrant and second-generation Nigerians make up a sizable portion of the African Americans (a category typically designated to describe people that are descendants of slaves) on campus.  As on-campus social relations among African American and immigrant Africans have shown, the lumping of these groups under the umbrella term of "African American" has hardly translated into solidarity and friendship on campus.

While stories of Lawal's working-class upbringing are hardly the same as Aminu's legend as being a descendant of royalty (with his first name Al-Farouq seemingly signifying his lineage), their experiences reflect how immigration from Nigeria to the United States since the nineteen sixties has transformed the landscape of "African America."  The parents of Ike Diogu, former Golden State Warrior, were like many other Nigerians who arrived to the United States to pursue advanced degrees.  Emeka Okafor, another second generation Nigerian American, grew up in the United States, but his father, an immigrant, has had a storied life collecting advanced degrees the same way Okafor collects checks. 

This isn't to assume that Nigerians are naturally fit to play basketball.  Nor am I suggesting that because there are a lot of Nigerians, that there are naturally more of them in the NBA.  Heck, of the Nigerian players to have played in the NBA, the ratio of stars to busts has been pretty imbalanced, with the failures clearly outnumbering the Olajuwans.  When reminiscing about Warrior draft busts, my friends and I joke whether or not Ike Diogu will break Chris Gatling's record for number of teams he's played on given how many times in Diogu's brief career he's already been dealt.

But the 2010 NBA draft and the surprising number of draftees of Nigerian descent tells us a lot about the political economy of NBA programming abroad (which we should just call "Star Search" for what it really is) in addition to the changing demographics of African American communities that have shaped the ethnic and racial demographics of the NBA.  Furthermore, basketball players of Nigerian descent in college and professional sports challenge static class-based and geographic-specific notions of the umbrella term "African American."  The presence of Nigerians, however, just goes to show how sports is an incredible place for understanding how the world works...

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