Twenty-one years after the death of apartheid, the NBA is in the city of Johannesburg. The NBA will play an exhibition game here but it is so much more than that. It is the culmination of a long imagined David Stern dream.
Stern, when he took over the NBA in 1980, was fully aware his league had the capacity to erase boundaries and shore lines despite the lingering toil of a brutal history that delegitimized human life. Given that longitudinal view, the NBA in Africa is an idea whose time has finally come. Descendants of Africana, some of whom happen to be the great, great, great, grandchildren of slaves, have descended upon this nation as an example of progress, change, hope and inspiration.
David Stern was always clear about how he viewed the game that James Naismith created. He was borrowing something that belonged to the world. He set out to create a blueprint in which American basketball would become international basketball. Aware a cart needs a wheel, NBA players in Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics were the starting point of the vision Stern had for his league. Coincidentally in that year, 1992, apartheid was taking its last gasp of oxygen, nearing the end of a racial caste system that created inequality, institutionalized hostility, sanctioned murder and produced despair and suffering over time.
The NBA is not as global as Stern wanted it to be, not yet. He envisioned regular season games all over the world. In the game tonight are players with roots in Spain, Montenegro, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, France, Greece, the United States. Stern’s vision has outgrown its original intentions, so much so, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, recently admitted regular season games in Africa was probable, an optimistic view with complicated details regarding travel, fatigue, days off, that will probably be negotiated by the union as it impacts players health.
But those details can’t overshadow what is going to happen tonight for children born in Africa, who are six and seven and eight years old, who will see American professional basketball for the first time in their young lives, who will gaze longingly at the players running up and down the court, who will from the stands yell and cheer and scream and clap and be awed and then go home and tuck themselves into bed and remember the men who looked just like them. Yes, the game will belong to the children for two hours and then it will attach to their psyche for two months and two years and perhaps, a lifetime.
There is a famous saying about education. “Each one, teach one.” The NBA is in Africa to expand and enlarge their brand and to create more marketing and financial opportunities and to introduce basketball on a micro-level. Teamwork. Sharing, Practice. Participation. The NBA is holding clinics and the children attending can barely take a breath, they are that emotional and overwhelmed and attentive, understanding in ways that American children their same age cannot, what an extraordinary moment this is.
Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
What happens tonight in Johannesburg, through the prism of history, will be deconstructed as a basketball game with an entertainment derivative. It will be sufficiently documented in the various searches: NBA in Africa. The NBA knows how to put on a show. But not everything, not the sum nor the whole, not the middle nor the end, will examine the entire story of what happens here in Ellis Park Arena, what this NBA exhibition game intrinsically means to the city of Johannesburg and their people and their children and their culture and their conquest over apartheid and their continued struggle for financial and personal equity. It is basketball and it is an exhibition.
But scrape the surface, get to the marrow and the truth is stunning. It is nothing more and nothing less than teaching. Each one. Teach one. The world changes in that simple but beautiful way.
photo via Wikimedia.org