(JOHANNESBURG, South Africa) — “NBA, we are coming! Africa, we are happy,” cheered the 60 boys selected from 20 countries across Africa, ranging from Cameroon to the Ivory Coast, and flown to Johannesburg for an opportunity of a lifetime.
Basketball Without Borders, organized and paid for by the NBA, offered these boys four days of intensive basketball coaching from some of the biggest names in the sport, including NBA all-star Dikembe Mutombo, who used to play for the Houston Rockets.
“I felt like there is an obligation to me and my duty and my power to make sure that the next generation succeed as well,” said the 7-foot-2 Congolese native.
One of the boys, Mawich Gatdet, who stands at 6-foot-8, is from Africa’s newest and one of the world’s poorest countries, South Sudan. He was thrilled to finally have shoes that fit his size-17 feet.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I am really happy that I got these shoes without paying. It’s a very good thing.”
Mark Hughes, the director of scouting for the New York Knicks, has volunteer coached for “Basketball Without Borders” for the past four years.
“They have heart, passion,” he said. “They play hard, but they don’t have a lot of great instruction.”
Hughes also attended as a scout, scoping out potential talent to take back to his team in New York City. He said he had seen some promising prospects.
“What I love about working with this group is that they are so energetic,” he said. “There are a few guys that may have a chance, and I think it’s about how much they work and how hard they want it.”
Just ask Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. Ten years ago, he was a wide-eyed kid from Cameroon at the first of these NBA camps in Africa. Today, he makes almost $5 million a year as a player for the Milwaukee Bucks. He is one of six Basketball Without Borders graduates now playing with the NBA.
“For kids who have the right to stay kids, basketball can bring them back to that stage,” he said. “Going through all that stuff they’re going through — wars, rapes … some of them lose their parents — when they get the ball, they become kids again.”
UNICEF uses the grads as ambassadors to the United States to spread the message that the people in the participating nations need aid.
“When the big players stand on the podium and talk about the game and the children of Africa, America hears it,” said Carly Stern, the president and CEO of UNICEF. “That’s why I’m invested in it — because I want America on their feet, because it’s not OK what’s happening to Africa’s children.”
Stern said when she looks at the kids in the Basketball Without Borders program, she sees gratitude in their faces.
“I see them looking for a road out,” she said. “Not a road to glory but a road out of poverty.”
By the fourth and final day of the NBA camp, the boys were playing better and started to work as a team.
“I have learned that the more I share the ball, the more my teammates want to play, the more they want to participate in the game and the better chance we have to win,” said Hamza Abdulmalik of Nigeria.
Of course, most at the camp will not make it to the NBA, but they will go home with skills they can pass on to others. On a continent filled with despair, this is about using hoops to export hope.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Paul Cruickshank and Michael Pearson, CNN