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Opportunity Realized a World Away

Travis Steele, Charles Okwandu
Wabash Valley College assistant Travis Steele is eager to get Charles Okwandu to the United States and lend him a helping hand. (Eli Saslow - The Washington Post)

Only 23, Steele had ascended to his position because of a reputation as a keen talent evaluator. But, in Nigeria, his initial appraisal hardly required expertise. He made his assessment seconds after the camp's opening whistle, having watched the players stand up and run to center court.

"They're huge!" Steele said. "This is unbelievable -- even better than I thought. I've never seen this many big kids in one room in my whole life."

Thirty of the players stood at least 6 feet 9, and a half dozen eclipsed 7 feet. Many of them, all ages 14 through 18, would grow taller still. When they ran through layup drills, several players slapped their hands against the backboard without needing to jump.

'A Way Out'

About 10 Nigerians have played in the NBA, although only Hakeem Olajuwon became a star, winning two NBA titles with the Houston Rockets. This season, at least 46 Nigerians play college basketball in the United States. Thousands of others actively pursue basketball scholarships and U.S. visas, convinced the sport provides opportunities unavailable in their country.

"Everything has to be put into surviving if you live in Nigeria, and people see basketball as a welfare opportunity," said Oliver B. Johnson, a coach who grew up in Washington, then moved to Nigeria more than 30 years ago after a stint in the Peace Corps. "People here used to see sports as a distraction. Now they look at basketball as a way out. It's like survival instinct, and it makes basketball more important than anything."

Said Amadou Gallo Fall, director of scouting for the Dallas Mavericks and a coach at the camp: "If they weren't playing basketball here, it would be a waste. This country might have the best natural talent for basketball of anywhere in the world."

Nigeria lacks the resources, though, to develop that talent, a reality that became clear to visiting coaches during the first session of camp. As a warmup, campers were asked to do the three-man weave, a drill that requires three players to pass to each other while running the length of the court. In the United States, it's a basic exercise common to most middle schoolers. In Nigeria, it's a foreign concept that quickly devolved into disaster.

During an hour spent on the three-man weave, only a handful of groups made it down the court without dropping the ball. Jarrin Akana, an assistant coach for the Denver Nuggets, watched and shook his head in dismay. "Some of these things are just so new to them that it's almost like teaching little kids," he said.

Standing next to Akana, Steele fixed his gaze on a lanky player wearing a No. 7 jersey who had successfully made it down the court twice without dropping the ball. Steele pointed at him, a survivor amid the wreckage.

"That might be my guy right there," Steele said. "He's got this thing down. Look at him! I might just have to bring that kid over, number seven. I like him a lot."

Steele pulled a camp roster from his pocket and drew a circle around No. 7.

Serious Floor Time

Charles Okwandu always prayed before he played basketball, but at the Top 50 Nigeria Camp, the 7-1 teenager in the No. 7 jersey sometimes knelt for five or 10 minutes at a time. There was a lot here to be thankful for, said Okwandu, a devout Christian.

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