I fell in love with Africa when I made the first of my 35 trips to the continent – to Uganda in 1967. Each time I go, I am amazed by the people and what they are doing.
I have just returned from my latest journey to Africa, this time to Dakar, Senegal, in West Africa with the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. I was a guest of the program on this trip, as I was last year when Basketball Without Borders visited South Africa. I wrote about that trip, too. And I accompanied the NBA on its first trip to South Africa back in 1993.
The purpose of the Basketball Without Borders Program in Africa is to bring together the 60 best young African male players to be trained in basketball skills as well as life skills such as leadership, character development and teamwork, and to involve them in the community to demonstrate the power of sport to make life better, especially regarding health and wellness. This year, 40 girls were in another camp doing some of the same things as the men.
I had not been to Senegal since the mid-1980s. I remembered it as a nation that beautifully combines French, Arab and African influences in architecture, art, cuisine and culture. Senegal has been one of the most stable of the 53 independent African nations; and it got a huge development spike by staging the 2008 Organization of the Islamic Conference, which brought together more than 50 countries with a Muslim majority. In the lead-up to that event, many observers expressed doubt that it could be pulled off in light of an enormous need for new roads, hotels and a conference center. But it was a huge success, and now Dakar is dotted with gorgeous hotels both in the city and along the coastline. It has expansive modern roads with fewer traffic jams than I have seen in most big urban areas.
One of the world's most famous landmarks is in Senegal, on Goree Island right off Dakar. Through the doors of this slave fort walked many Africans on their way to the Americas in what was called the Middle Passage, in which more than two million died. Another two million died in the process of being captured in Africa. Between 14-16 million ended up in the Americas as slaves. The slave traders took the young and strong. Great African civilizations, such as Mali, Cush, Zimbabwe, Ghana and Songay, were crushed as they lost a huge percentage of their best and brightest. When the slaves walked past the stone walls of Goree and onto the ships, they knew they were passing what had come to be known as the point of no return. "Maafa" is the Swahili name for the slave trade. It means "great disaster." It certainly was that.
Goree was the first destination when the players and coaches arrived with a sizable NBA staff on this recent trip. It set a serious tone for the week. I watched as current NBA players DeSagana Diop (of Senegal and the Charlotte Bobcats), Luc Mbah a Moute (Cameroon and the Milwaukee Bucks), Hasheem Thabeet (Tanzania and the Memphis Grizzlies), Ronny Turiaf (France and the New York Knicks), Danilo Gallinari (Italy and the Knicks) and the Philadelphia 76ers' Willie Green absorbed the terrible history of the slave trade. They were accompanied by former WNBA stars Nykesha Sales and Tamika Raymond and NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The coaching contingent on the trip included Rick Carlisle (Dallas), Bill Cartwright (Phoenix), Lionel Hollins (Memphis), B.J. Johnson (Houston), Milt Newton (Wizards), Kelvin Sampson (Bucks) and Jay Triano (Raptors). Phoenix's new general manager, Lance Blanks, was part of the group, too.
Some of the visitors, including me, who had been to Dachau or other Nazi concentration camps said the impact of Goree was similarly powerful.
The focus of this Basketball Without Borders trip was on hardcore life-and-death issues, including HIV/AIDS and malaria awareness. The NBA partners with UNICEF and Nothing But Nets, which distributes mosquito nets and helps residents understand that sleeping under them can save their lives. Annually, Malaria kills a million people across the globe. Our group of players and coaches spent an afternoon distributing and hanging nets in people's homes.
Another afternoon involved a high-energy encounter with perhaps 100 children at a local YMCA, which the NBA helped modernize and install fitness training programs. The league supplied the building with a technology center that includes classrooms and more than 20 computers. It is part of the NBA Cares Legacy Project, which establishes permanent facilities to support communities in which children and families can learn and play. It was the 25th safe haven created by the NBA in Africa.
It was a joy watching Mutombo, Raymond and Mbah a Moute dance with the children as drums surrounded them. Sales was among the drummers. As he danced, Mutombo, who has been a friend since our 1993 trip with the NBA, came over to me and said, "I can't help it. It is in my blood." He is the perfect global ambassador. His serious intellect and sharp wit make everyone want to be near him.
Mbah a Moute, Turiaf, Gallinari and Thabeet read to children. I think the players were smiling as broadly as the children. It was a great scene.
During the week, a new basketball court was unveiled in Parcelles Assainies, the section of Dakar where Diop was raised. A youth basketball league is being organized there. You could see the pride on Diop's face to be part of the giving back to his own people.
A huge part of the story from our week in Africa has to be that of an elder son of Senegal. Amadou Fall was born in the country. He came to the U.S. and graduated from the University of the District of Columbia. The President of UDC at that time was Dr. Tilden LeMelle, who had been my African Studies professor two decades earlier when I was completing my Ph.D. I was the commencement speaker at UDC the year Adamou graduated. I did not meet him then, but did on the 2009 Basketball Without Borders trip to South Africa when he was still with the Mavs. He returned to Senegal as the NBA's vice president for Africa. No other professional sports league has such a position. Here is a man who has a vision that sports can make a great contribution to his continent. He knows the 1995 World Rugby Cup did, as depicted in the movie "Invictus." And he saw what South Africa did to disprove doubters with the World Cup this year.
Adamou knows what Africa can do. The speeches he gave in Dakar showed that pride and confidence.
The NBA continues to show its commitment to Africa. Amadou Fall is the face of that commitment.
Richard E. Lapchick is the chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs The Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport at UCF, is the author of 16 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.