A Group of Americans Is Giving the Libyan National Basketball Team a Helping Hand
Tuesday, July 28, 2009; 12:37 AM
Lamar Butler, Kevin Nickelberry and Alpha Bangura played high school basketball in Prince George's County, and the game has sent each man across the world since. Butler went from the Final Four to the Czech Republic to Turkey; Nickelberry has made coaching stops at seven schools between South Carolina and Massachusetts; Bangura has played for 18 teams in eight countries on four continents.
But this summer, Butler, Nickelberry and Bangura have landed in the same improbable location, and are working together toward the same unlikely goal. Thanks to Bangura's wide-ranging connections, those three have teamed with four other basketball nomads to help bolster the national team of Libya, a country that has so little recent international experience that it doesn't even appear in FIBA's world rankings.
In August, Libya will host the FIBA Africa Championship, also known as AfroBasket, for the first time since the biennial competition began in 1962. The tournament, which features 16 countries and will be held in Tripoli and Benghazi, is the first major continental sporting event in the country since Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi began normalizing relations with the West. And according to FIBA Africa, the tournament also will spearhead the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the coup that put Gaddafi into power.
Bangura, who played at Eleanor Roosevelt High, has spent the past several months working with Libya's basketball federation to put together a team that will, they hope, have a strong showing at AfroBasket, which runs from Aug. 5-15.
"When I came here, they treated me with so much respect and admiration that it was something where I felt like I just wanted to be a part of it," Bangura said in a telephone interview. "Throughout my career, I've had a knack for bringing people together. This isn't the first time that someone -- like an owner or a GM -- has said, 'Alpha, do you know a player that plays this position?' I've done things like this on a smaller scale. I'm really just looking at this as an opportunity to do something legitimate, so once I'm done playing I can make an easy transition to doing this full-time."
'We Want You to Stay'
Bangura, 29, ended up in Libya by happenstance. In the spring of 2008, he played for a Lebanese pro team, Sagesse-Al Hekmeh, in the Arab club championships in Amman, Jordan. He did well -- Asia-Basket.com named him most valuable "import" player -- and was interviewed by a Libyan reporter who asked him if he was interested in coming to Libya. Bangura said yes, but didn't think anything of it; a few days later, the 6-foot-6 small forward headed to Kuwait to play for Al Qadsia in the Asia Champions Cup.
Over the next few months, however, Libya's basketball federation reached out to Bangura and eventually invited him to the country to meet with players and coaches affiliated with the national team. He even played in a tournament with a Libyan club, to see if he meshed with the players.
"Once the tournament was over, they said, 'Hey Alpha, we want you to stay, and we want you to pretty much help us in bringing some guys over here,' " Bangura said. "I honestly didn't know I'd have that big of a responsibility. . . . But they gave me a lot of leeway to make decisions, to bring over guys that I thought would fit into the system and buy into the goal that we have. They trusted me to hire the coach and pretty much everyone involved from the assistants to the trainers."
Bangura has known Nickelberry, who resigned as Hampton's head coach in April, for more than a decade. Nickelberry, 44, played at Central High and was an assistant at Monmouth during the 1998-99 season, when Bangura was a freshman and the Northeast Conference newcomer of the year. Osman Bangura, Alpha's brother and the junior varsity coach at Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax, was brought on as an assistant, and Alhaji Bah, Bangura's cousin and another former Eleanor Roosevelt player, came along as the team's director of basketball operations.
Butler, 25, an All-Met at Oxon Hill in 2001 and a starter on George Mason's 2006 Final Four team, knew Bangura from home, and they reconnected in March when they faced each other in the NBA Development League, Butler with the Reno Bighorns and Bangura with the Bakersfield Jam.
"When Alpha called and asked if I wanted to play for the Libyan national team, I was like, 'Huh?' " said Butler, who has played professionally in the Czech Republic and Turkey. "It's great exposure, so why not? . . . I doubt there's a point of a percentage chance that I play for the U.S. national team, so it was a no-brainer for me."
Bangura and Nickelberry reached out to four other players: guard Vernon Hamilton (Clemson) and forwards Hiram Fuller (Fresno State), Randy Holcomb (San Diego State) and Mike Scott (Kent State). Bangura wasn't looking for superstars; he wanted players who "had a chip on their shoulder, who have played well in different places but maybe haven't gotten the opportunities they may have deserved," he said. Familiarity was key.