When Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike arrived at the Basketball Without Borders Africa camp held in Cairo, Egypt in late August, the significance of his presence there wasn’t initially apparent to him.
Sure, it was his first time back on the African continent since he emigrated from Nigeria to the United States about 10 years ago, but that itself didn’t put him in an overly sentimental mood.
Once he saw the 60-plus under-18 kids from 26 African countries assembled, though …
“It didn’t really hit me until we actually started the camp. Just seeing the kids, seeing them practice and work hard, just seeing the joy on their faces,” Azubuike told The Salt Lake Tribune in a Zoom interview from Cairo. “These kids don’t have a lot, but they are super-grateful, they’re excited for the opportunity. … They’re trying to learn and get better. It just puts stuff in perspective.”
As the 22-year-old 7-footer began getting to know some of the kids he was there to teach basketball and life skills to, he couldn’t help but discover some of their stories and compare them to his own.
That aforementioned “perspective” was in large supply.
“Some of these kids don’t have a basketball gym, like we have in the States, where they can go every day and work hard and get better at their game. Some of them have to go to a different country or an academy just to find somewhere to play basketball,” Azubuike said. “For me, growing up, it was the same way. I had to walk 40 minutes just to get to an outdoor basketball court to shoot hoops. Some of these kids don’t have that luxury where they can just go to the gym, lift weights, and all that stuff.”
That, he explained, made what he saw all the more impressive.
Realizing the impediments they have to improving their nascent basketball games, recognizing the limitations they have in terms of access to facilities, equipment, instruction …
It got him fixated on the idea of how many more Africans there could be in the NBA one day if those circumstances were to change.
“You see the potential — you see the potential in what they can do. Some of the kids are really good,” Azubuike said. “And then you start thinking: What if they had all this stuff in place for them? What if they had a gym? What if they had a weight room? If they have all this stuff in place, what is their potential? These kids are talented.”
That, as much as anything, is the point of Basketball Without Borders, which operates under a joint agreement between the NBA and FIBA to serve as a global basketball development and community outreach program.
It began in 2001, with Serbia’s Vlade Divac and Croatia’s Tony Kukoc reuniting with ex-teammates from the Yugoslavia National Team in Treviso, Italy, to work with 50 children from the former Yugoslavia. The first Basketball Borders Africa camp took place in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2003.
In all, there now have been 66 BWB camps staged in 41 cities in 31 countries on six continents. More than 310 current and former NBA and WNBA players, along with more than 240 NBA team personnel, have participated in the instruction of some 3,800 participants from 133 countries and territories.
There were a record 121 international players from 40 countries on opening-night rosters in the NBA for the 2021-22 season. And there have been 105 former campers either drafted into the NBA and WNBA, or signed as free agents — and 41 of those were on ’21-22 season-opening rosters.
Former BWB campers who’ve subsequently gone on to pay in the NBA include such notable names as Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Deandre Ayton, Jonas Valanciunas, Nicolas Batum, Danilo Gallinari, RJ Barrett, Josh Giddey, Rui Hachimura … and new Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen.
Azubuike’s five-day experience marked the 18th-ever BWB Africa camp — and the first one to take place somewhere other than South Africa, Senegal, or Angola.
More than 1,400 boys and girls and men and women from more than 30 African countries have participated in BWB Africa, and 12 former BWB Africa campers have been drafted into the NBA (Embiid, Siakam, Gorgui Dieng, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Luc Mbah a Moute, 2022 draftees Christian Koloko and Khalifa Diop, plus Mouhamed Saer Sene, Solomon Alabi, Hamady N’diaye, Christian Eyenga, and Chukwudi Maduabum).
Azubuike, meanwhile, was one of the record five Nigerian players and record-tying 14 African players on opening-night rosters for the ’21-22 NBA season. There were also an additional 30 players with at least one parent from an African country.
Given all that, he noted that his purpose in being at the camp was pretty simple.
“Just helping out the kids,” he said.
He focused on trying to teach small details and basic fundamentals such as footwork, screen-and-rolls, passing with both right and left hands, and finishing at the basket.
The language barrier was problematic at times. Some of the campers don’t speak English. Some tried to converse with Azubuike in French, only to discover that language was just as foreign to him. Mostly, he said, he just tried to demonstrate every action or drill multiple times, and he came away happy with how quickly they seemed to comprehend what he was getting at and go to work on it.
He was also happy to see how thrilled they were to get to learn from and interact with a sizable NBA contingent.
Other participants at the Hassan Mostafa Indoor Sports Complex included players Mo Bamba (Magic), Malcolm Brogdon (Celtics) and Grant Williams (Celtics); head coaches Steve Kerr (Warriors), Chauncey Billups (Blazers), Willie Green (Pelicans), Wes Unseld Jr. (Wizards), and Chris Finch (Wolves); plus various other NBA front office executives (including Raptors president Masai Ujiri), assistant coaches, scouts, trainers, and Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo.
“They look at us, they want to be where we are, they want to one day play in college or make it to the NBA, make a better life for themselves,” Azubuike said, “so they’re watching every move we make.”
And, going forward, he’ll be looking out for them, eager to see what moves they make, too.