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KAI RYSSDAL: The NBA announced today the 2009 All Star Game’s going to be in Phoenix, Arizona. As long as they’re thinking that far ahead, they might want to consider changing the name of the National Basketball Association to reflect reality. More than 20 percent of players in the league come from outside of the United States. The reigning MVP, Dirk Nowitski of the Dallas Mavericks, is from Germany. China’s Yao Ming is practically a household name. Which makes them manna from marketing heaven for a league with planetary ambitions. Of course they don’t just show up on the NBA’s doorstep wearing size 18 shoes.
Working…our series on the life of a single worker in a global economy returns today. With a man responsible for finding tall strangers who can sink a fadeaway jumper. Here’s Jon Miller in Nigeria.
JON MILLER: Sam Ahmedu has come to Kano, in Northern Nigeria near the edge of the Sahara Desert, for a regional high school basketball tournament. Three days of tall skinny teenagers slashing and hacking in a hot little arena. He sits at the scorer’s table, taking notes.
SAM AHMEDU: Coming in here right now, I can tell you that two players interest me so far.
Ahmedu has an eye for talent. But it doesn’t take an expert to notice the two best players on the floor.
AHMEDU: No. 4 stands out because he is tall. He is big. He’s rebounding well. He has been out-rebounding anybody. He has been boxing out, and he has a very good gait, and a very good structure.
Same goes for another kid on the same team who looks a lot like him. Turns out they’re brothers, Moses and Paul, 6 feet 6 inches tall.
Everything’s going fine, until their team starts winning, and an angry crowd gathers at the table.
AHMEDU: They are saying No. 4 has graduated from the school, so they will now write a protest. We will look at their evidence. If it is true, then we will disqualify the team.
The team is disqualified. Seems the brothers aren’t graduates, but ringers from another school entirely. Still, when the tournament’s over, Ahmedu takes their names and numbers, says he’ll be in touch. After all, it wasn’t their fault that the coach let them play.
Sam Ahmedu believes in basketball’s redemptive power. He says the game saved him from becoming a “rascal.”
AHMEDU: I feel God has been very very kind to me by using basketball to shape my own life. I got an education. I’m a lawyer. All because of basketball.
For 40 years Ahmedu’s been playing or coaching or managing teams. But he always had a day job, as a lawyer in the Nigerian army. Then in 2005, the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies offered him $10,000 a year to be their eyes and ears in Africa. Nike, always on the lookout for rising stars, kicked in another 7,500. So he went into basketball full time.
AHMEDU: Whether they pay me or not, and they asked me to go do those jobs, I would still do it anyway because it’s my passion.
But a scout’s life ain’t easy.
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Ahmedu spends about half his time on the road. Not just in Nigeria, where he lives, but in Senegal, Congo, South Africa, Chad. A couple of weeks before I met him he landed in the hospital, completely worn out.
AHMEDU: While by name it may sound like a glamorous job, in reality it’s a difficult job. It’s a job that you will work your ass off like a houseboy.
COACH ADEKA: Good pass. Good Job. Good look.
It’s not like it’s hard to find tall people in Nigeria. There are seven-footers everywhere. But the country hasn’t had an NBA star since Hakeem Olajuwon back in the 80s and 90s. Back home in Lagos, Ahmedu drops by the national stadium to check out the junior national team. And I sit down with Abel Baraya, 19 years old. He’s a good student. He says he wants to study I.T. in the states. I ask him if he sees basketball mainly as a way to let him do that.
ABEL BARAYA: No, no, uh-uh, uh-uh. I still want to make it to the NBA. That’s the dream of every player. That’s the crest of basketball. That’s the peak of basketball.
MILLER: Do you feel you have a good chance?
BARAYA: Of course. Of course. I would make it any day. I don’t feel timid about myself, about my game. Lots of self-confidence, lots of self-esteem.
Lots of self-confidence, lots of self-esteem, that’s the mantra here at the Warriors Basketball Academy in an industrial neighborhood in Lagos.
AHMEDU: You can do it. Don’t worry.
Sam Ahmedu founded it back in the 1990s.
AHMEDU: I know you are thinking that a lot of the players will laugh at you. Eh? The point is that every player that becomes great starts somewhere. Let’s go. Ah?
Academy is a fancy word for it. It’s just a bathroom-less bunkhouse and this outdoor court. It’s all free, all volunteer. Kids show up at seven in the morning, before the day gets too hot. Ahmedu buys them all breakfast, and dishes out advice.
AHMEDU: Olaide, what position do you think you will end up playing?
OLAIDE JUBRIL: I will end up playing as a three and four.
AHMEDU: Why do you think you have the ability to end up as a four?
JUBRIL: I have the ability to end up as a four because of my height, and the inside play.
Olaide Jubril is 16 years old and already 6 feet 8 inches tall. A prep school in Boston just offered him a scholarship. He sees himself playing as a big man, a forward. Ahmedu tells him he should work on his ball-handling, so he can also play guard.
AHMEDU: You will be sure that you will make any team. But if you are 6’8″ and you want to play as a four you may have all the skills but the likelihood is that you may be limited when you come against them big guys. So start thinking about it. Ah?
None of Ahmedu’s proteges have made it to the Grizzlies yet. One kid from his academy was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics and banged around the league for a couple of years. Others are playing in Europe and Asia. But more than 30 players he’s worked with have gone on to high school or college in the states.
AHMEDU: If you want to talk about the number of kids that we have reformed, let me put it that way. It is amazing. We have taken people that had lost hope in life, drug addicts, we have brought them to the basketball court, they are now looking after themselves and their own family. They may not play in the NBA, but they have been able to use basketball to get education in life, which is the most important thing.
One result of the NBA’s global push is that kids all over the world now go to bed each night and dream that they can make it. But the competition is beyond intense. There’s a tiny number of openings, and of course the bigger the applicant pool, the worse any single player’s chances. Kids from Africa are at a disadvantage anyway. There’s hardly enough money for backboards, let alone weights, and videos and special diets. Sam Ahmedu understands all that, but he says he doesn’t mind . . . it’s better than their not dreaming at all.
RYSSDAL: Jon Miller went to Nigeria to get that story for us. It’s a collaboration with Homelands Productions. Jon sent us a note to tell us Olaide Jubril never did make it to the United States. The 16-year-old who was offered a scholarship in Boston couldn’t get a visa.
You can see pictures of him and of Sam Ahmedu, and you can hear other stories from our series…Working…at our website. It’s “marketplace.org.”
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