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What Team USA is missing in Africa

8/27/2014 - Olympic Sports
Team USA missed a scheduled visit to Goree Island, which left an impact on Barack Obama in 2013. Jim Watson/Getty Images

Masai Ujiri walked down the dark corridor toward the light and the sound of the Atlantic Ocean, waves crashing against the rocks. Standing at what is known as "The Door of No Return," where countless African slaves were once transported onto boats, the Toronto Raptors general manager felt sudden chills.

Goree Island, a 20-minute ferry ride off the coast of the Republic of Senegal, is described by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the largest slave-trading center off the African coast from the 15th to the 19th century. Whether you are a U.S. president or a pope or an NBA GM, this site leaves an unforgettable impression.

"You go there and you live it," recalled Ujiri, the first African-born general manager in U.S. sports. "Nothing has changed about the island and they've kept it the way it was, where the slaves were transported, that was the last stop. To see all those unique cells and [slave] houses, it is mind-boggling.

"It is one of those places that you want to experience in your life. I see people that have gone there -- their reaction is life-changing."

Team USA was supposed to visit Senegal on Wednesday and become the first U.S. national basketball team to travel to Africa. The Americans were slated to conduct a basketball clinic in Dakar and then take the trip to Goree Island, the one Barack Obama described as "very powerful" during his visit there last summer.

However, the United States -- which drilled Slovenia 101-71 in its final exhibition Tuesday in advance of the FIBA World Cup of Basketball -- had to cancel its one-day trip because of increasing concerns over the Ebola virus.

"I think a lot of them would have tears in their eyes," Dikembe Mutombo, now an NBA global ambassador, said of how some of Team USA's players would react if they visited Goree Island. "There are so many people who have walked on the island with tears in their eyes. Putting your foot there and knowing here's where my people left, it means a lot. The emotional impact that you feel ... it is hard to describe."

The players and staff all had taken the necessary immunity shots weeks in advance for the visit.

"I was ecstatic about going because giving back to Africa, that's roots where we came from," Kenneth Faried said. "It helps to give back to places that you came from and have ancestors. It is scary what is going on over there and I pray for them every day."

Ebola has led to more than 1,400 deaths in more than 2,600 cases in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization. Like Senegal, all of these countries are located along the western coast of Africa.

USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo hoped to see his team forge an emotional bond at Goree Island, where an unknown number of men, women and children were locked in cramped cells and inhumane conditions, sometimes for months, before walking through "The Door of No Return" and into a life of servitude or death.

"The water was infested with sharks," said Amadou Gallo Fall, vice president of development for the NBA in Africa. "To hear that some people would actually jump off and know that they were jumping to their sure death after 'The Door of No Return' rather than getting on that boat, that was impactful."

"You learn about slavery, study in books," added Fall, a native of Senegal. "But to go there and now see actually this is the place where people were brought and kind of locked up in inhumane conditions ... it certainly was a very, very powerful experience for me."

While Team USA was not able to visit Senegal, other NBA players and coaches were able to recently visit South Africa as part of the 2014 Basketball Without Borders program.

Ujiri, who along with Fall has been a major part of BWB since its first foray into Africa in 2003, led a contingent that included Brooklyn's Andrei Kirilenko and Lionel Hollins, Toronto's Dwane Casey and Amir Johnson and Denver's Brian Shaw, there in August. They instructed 60 top African players born in 1997 or 1998.

"It was unbelievable because I grew up in the '60s during the segregation and went through my first formative years in segregated schools in the south in Kentucky," said Casey, the Raptors' head coach. "It really hit home with me to know that the struggles that they went through with apartheid [in South Africa]."

For more than a decade, the NBA has conducted clinics, helped build facilities and aided communities in Africa. There have been 1,000 BWB participants from 31 African countries. Eight BWB camp players -- most recently Cameroon's Joel Embiid, this year's No. 3 overall selection -- have gone on to be drafted by NBA teams since the inception of the program.

The league also established an office in Johannesburg in 2010 and announced earlier this month that it will stage a first-ever exhibition game next August in South Africa. Ujiri called it a turning point.

"Six, seven years ago, this was not possible. Four years ago, an NBA office was possible. Now an exhibition game is possible. ... I think that is a huge step."

NBA commissioner Adam Silver added: "It's a great opportunity for the league and the sport of basketball in Africa. I don't anticipate this [canceled Team USA visit] will be a setback in any way. It's just a reality of dealing with a current health concern."

Some Team USA players still plan on making the trip to Africa eventually.

"Any part of Africa is going to be a learning experience for us," Derrick Rose said. "Going somewhere where you have never been to like that, somewhere that is so historical, especially for me would be incredible because nobody in my family has ever been. The day that I do go, I want to take my mom.

"I know I will have my day [in Africa]."