Trading Diamonds for Blue Chips

Players also seek out Smith, sending him letters and videos in hopes of making it to the United States.
Players also seek out Smith, sending him letters and videos in hopes of making it to the United States. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

PHILADELPHIA -- For more than 25 years, Joe Smith traveled across Africa in search of lucrative goods. He found diamonds in Liberia and Sierra Leone, so he learned how to export them to the United States. He discovered gold in Mali, so he lived there in a village for more than a year, he said, and sometimes mined for it himself.

Not until recently, though, did Smith stumble upon what he called "the best product over there," one he believes will make him more money than diamonds or gold ever could. Now, as his full-time job, he imports African basketball players.

During the last three years, Smith scouted players, secured visas and arranged college scholarships in the United States for eight African players, mostly Nigerians. He plans to bring in 18 more players over the next two years. In exchange, Smith expects those players to repay him with 20 to 25 percent of their earnings if they make the NBA.

"This is a business plan that is going to make millions," Smith said. "When one of my guys makes the NBA and he's getting ready to sign his contract or whatever, I'll start a U.S. corporation in the player's name. The player owns 80, 75 percent. Joe Smith owns the other percent of the company and runs the operation, investing funds in the right way."

Smith, 64, hardly is alone in his pursuit of Nigerian teenagers as a valuable commodities. High school and college coaches, NBA scouts, would-be agents and representatives of basketball recruiting services regularly travel to Nigeria in hopes of discovering a unique talent that could transform their careers, make them rich, or both. The industry is fueled by Nigerian players desperate to escape a country where basketball stars make less than $50 a month. They post classified ads on Internet basketball sites, accompanied by pictures meant to highlight their height. They e-mail middlemen such as Smith and beg, essentially, to be taken advantage of.

"We're still trying to get a handle on all of the people we should be wary of," said Kim Bohuny, NBA vice president in charge of international operations. "We want to make sure these players are surrounded by people looking out for their well-being and education, not money. We're trying to get control of it, but it's always a struggle."

Typical of a start-up company, Smith's operation has overtaken the two-story apartment where he lives with his wife and grandson in the Philadelphia suburb of Clifton Heights, Pa. About 20 meticulously kept file folders -- one for every Nigerian player Smith hopes to bring over -- are stacked on a table in the living room. Copies of dozens of e-mails from players seeking Smith's help clutter a desk in the basement. When Smith walks outside to the mailbox, a self-made basketball highlight tape featuring a Nigerian player often waits there for him.

In their e-mails and letters, Nigerian players call Smith "coach," and they generally regard him as a basketball savant. He has yet to place a player at a top-level Division I college, but that's hardly important to Nigerians who lack a firm understanding of the American college basketball hierarchy. Smith has mastered a complicated visa process and built connections at schools such as Northeastern University, Tennessee Tech and the University of Bridgeport. He spends money to bring players to the United States and finds them full college scholarships. He also has arranged for a few NBA tryouts.

"If you want to get to America, you have to talk to him," Cyril Awere, a 6-foot-11 Nigerian center whom Smith hopes to place in college, said at a basketball recruiting camp in Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, last October. "If he can get me to the U.S., I don't care if he makes money on me. He's the most powerful basketball person."

Heavily Invested

When he first brought African players to the United States in 2002, Smith bombarded NBA teams with scouting videos and informational packets. Even though he has yet to place a player in the NBA, Smith said he maintains regular contact with at least 15 professional scouts and general managers. Milwaukee Bucks Director of Player Personnel Dave Babcock recently wrote to Smith offering a private workout for two 7-foot centers Smith hopes to bring to the United States in the next few months.

Smith's connections even helped him earn the stamp of an ultimate basketball insider: a relationship with a shoe company. Adidas allows Smith to order 60 or 70 pairs of shoes from the company catalogue for free every year, Smith said. He gives the shoes to his players in the United States and brings extras to distribute in Nigeria. In return, he plans to steer his players toward endorsement deals with Adidas.

So far, Smith's business is a long lesson in promise unfulfilled: an NBA tryout for a player who instead signed a long-term deal in Europe; two players sidetracked at junior and community colleges; four more players -- Alassane Savadogo (Harding University), Augustine Okosun (Georgetown College), Aristide Sawadogo (Clayton College) and Ikyaator Msoo (Bridgeport) -- with faint NBA potential only time and development could realize.

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