The Harlem Globetrotters of Africa
Looking for the next Joel Embiid? Start in this South African nation.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Angolans have dominated African basketball — and could head stateside soon.
The great dynasties roll effortlessly from the tongues of basketball fans. The John Wooden UCLA Bruins of the 1960s and ’70s and the Geno Auriemma UConn Huskies from the early 2000s to today. The Magic Johnson Los Angeles Lakers, Larry Bird Boston Celtics and Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls drew fame not just on American soil but also globally. Yet on the world stage, there is a team that has been every bit as dominant with only a shade of the formers’ glory. And it comes from a nation that, as recently as the turn of the century, was mired in a bloody civil war that led to half a million deaths.
The Angolan national basketball team has won 11 of the last 15 FIBA Africa Championships.
It’s one thing to dominate a college or pro basketball league, and another altogether to dominate a continent. But that’s what the Angolan basketball team has done — they’re essentially the Harlem Globetrotters of their region, dunking on the rest of Africa’s teams like they’re the Washington Generals. Angola’s first championship came when the tournament was hosted in its capital city, Luanda, in 1989, 14 years after the former colony’s independence from Portugal turned the nation into a battleground. Even as a million people were being internally displaced amid ongoing conflict until 2002, the nation of nearly 30 million established itself as a perennial basketball power.
Yet despite that dominance, none of its athletes have ever made a roster in the National Basketball Association. As of the 2015–16 season, at least 13 African countries had sent a player to the most competitive basketball league in the world. Nigeria leads the pack with 17 athletes in the association; Senegal has sent the next most stateside, while the Democratic Republic of Congo can claim former star center Dikembe Mutombo and Cameroon can boast current star center Joel Embiid.
Carlos Morais, then a 27-year-old guard and AfroBasket MVP, spent the summer of 2013 with the Toronto Raptors squad. A National Team and FIBA hero, Morais signed a non-guaranteed contract in September 2013 but was waived in October before the season’s start. Angolan player Yanick Moreira tried out with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015 and the Raptors in 2016, but couldn’t crack the regular season lineup either. He joined a list of others who came close but didn’t succeed, from Gerson Monteiro to Victor Muzadi and Valdelício Joaquim.
Part of the problem is that Angolan players are hesitant to move overseas for high school basketball. “We have players who go late,” says Moreira, who played college ball at Southern Methodist University. “If you’re young, you’ve got to move to another country where you don’t know anybody, don’t know the culture or the language. A lot of guys decide not to do it because they’re scared.”
That’s starting to change. Bruno Fernando, an Angolan power forward, played at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and is now a possible draft prospect out of the University of Maryland. Another Angolan power forward, Silvio De Sousa, also played at IMG, and plays for the Kansas Jayhawks. “They’ve suffered from a lack of exposure,” says Senegalese-born Amadou Gallo Fall, a former NCAA player who serves as an NBA vice president and managing director for Africa from the league’s Johannesburg office.
While Angolans have a rabid fan base at home, pro scouts rarely made their way to its oil- and diamond-rich lands. Part of the challenge was political: Until recently, an Angolan visa was one of the most difficult in the world to come by. Another difficulty was that opportunities for youth athletes to play basketball are scarce, as the quality of life remains low, with life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Angola ranking among the worst in the world.
Still, Angola is opening itself up to the world — and that shift could benefit its hoops dreams. As of March, Angola began issuing visas on arrival for tourists from 61 countries, including the United States, China and all European Union members. It eliminated a mandate requiring a “letter of invitation” for all would-be visitors and has ramped up efforts to create a sustainable tourism industry. On the basketball front, NBA Africa and FIBA partnered to host a Basketball Without Borders camp in Angola in 2016. And Helmarc Academia, an Angolan semipro team, is partnering with the NBA to create a Jr. NBA program in conjunction with 12 other African nations. “We see it in the camps — they are going to produce NBA players in the next few years,” Fall says. If you’re looking for the next Embiid, look no farther than Angola.
Júlio Chitunda, a freelance sportswriter, contributed to this report.
Correction: This piece originally, incorrectly, included Montenegro on a list of African nations.