ALEXANDRA, SOUTH AFRICA -- "U-TAH Jazz! U-TAH Jazz!"
"DEN-VER Nuggets! DEN-VER Nuggets!"
The dribbling competition in South Africa's most densely populated black township has come down to John Crotty's Jazz against Dikembe Mutombo's Nuggets. Patrick Ewing's team, Alonzo Mourning's and Alex English's have all crashed out.
So it's showtime. The chants have been chanted, the chalk talk is over, and the tension seems to be getting to the big guy in the size 20 sneakers.
"Man, what are you doing? This isn't soccer," Mutombo erupts at one of his 12-year-old charges, who has just dribbled the ball off his foot, putting his team into a quick hole.
"Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" implores the irrepressible, mock-irritated Mutombo, whose drill sergeant number would be a lot more convincing if his grin wasn't spreading from ear to ear. The hapless kid, who until two months ago had never touched a basketball, dutifully scampers after the loose ball. No luck. He might not be able to dribble, but he can't find the handle, either. Crotty's team wins.
No, strike that. Everybody wins.
Basketball is an infant, orphan sport in black South Africa, but it's just been adopted by some of the most famous athletes in the sporting world. For the second time in two years, a group of NBA players and coaches has come to South Africa to give clinics and inspirational lectures, and to leave behind a goody bag full of hoops, balls, backboards, caps, T-shirts -- and dreams.
At the moment, there's not much to the sport here, except dreams. Basketball is about as well-developed in Alexandra as, say, cricket is in Anacostia. This is a township of 350,000 people, jammed into one square mile of shacks and huts. Most people live six, eight, 10 to a room. Despite the urban setting (Alexandra is five miles from downtown Johannesburg), cows and sheep roam the streets. And there are exactly two basketball courts serving the entire township. Both were built in the past year.
"The game could really take off in South Africa, but if you don't have the facilities and the opportunities, it becomes difficult," said Atlanta Hawks Coach Lenny Wilkens. "And let's just say the history of South Africa is that the opportunities haven't been made available for blacks."
Thus, the great anomaly of basketball in South Africa. Here's a majority black country where basketball, at the moment, is a majority white sport.
The administrators of Basketball South Africa say it will take at least five years for the sport to take off in the townships. Basketball, not unlike the country itself, is in the early stages of an awkward transition here. What little organized basketball there is in South Africa is played mostly by transplanted southern Europeans -- Greeks, Portuguese, Italians. There are a smattering of Chinese and Israelis too. A pro league is scheduled to be launched later this year, with six teams. All the coaches and almost all the players will be white.
"The whites so far haven't shown much interest in the development of the sport in the townships," said Albert Mokoena, secretary general of Basketball South Africa, which is supposed to be a united amateur association, bringing together black and white. "We try to get the white teams to play games against teams from the township, but they won't come. They say the security and the facilities are bad." (White teams, in turn, say the black teams never show up for the games in white areas.)
Mokoena says he is trying to get basketball into the schools, and then he expects it to take off. "We get soap operas and music videos from the States, and what you call African American kids are always bouncing a basketball. So our kids here naturally want to start bouncing basketballs," he said. "I have no doubt that the demand will be here. My only fear is we won't be able to keep up with it."
After the first NBA tour last year, the league arranged for its weekly television show, "Inside Stuff," to be shown here. Now some of the township kids are up on all the latest moves and lingo. For instance, although everyone seemed awestruck at the size of the trio of ex-Georgetown centers, one young aficionado kept his cool. "Shaq is even bigger," Thomas Bogopa, 16, confided to a friend, referring to Orlando Magic star Shaquille O'Neal.
No matter how much the kids got from the clinic, the NBA stars seemed to be getting it all back, with interest. Their five-day tour has taken them to Soweto, Guguletu, Khayelitsha -- some of the biggest and toughest townships in the country. Each stop, they've wound up overstaying their allotted time. "To quote David Stern, we're here because it's right to be here," said former Bullets coach Wes Unseld.
In addition to giving clinics, they toured communities and visited Robben Island, the Alcatraz-like prison island off Cape Town where Nelson Mandela served most of his 27-year prison term.
"I wish I came here when I was 10 or 11," said Mourning. "I think it would have really made an impact on me. You realize how much in America you take for granted, like having a roof over your head, being able to do what you want, being able to go to school, watch TV."
Crotty, the only white player on the tour, said he's been struck by the absence of any racial animosity. "People have been incredibly warm and friendly in townships. And the great thing is, you go into some of these huts, and the people have real hope. They feel good about the country. One woman we visited told us she had just gotten electricity for the first time in her life, and how thrilled she was about it. Then as we walked out, we saw her little grandson going to the bathroom in the front yard. And you suddenly realize -- the next thing they need is a toilet."
Mutombo is back for his second trip; it was he who talked his old Georgetown buddies, Mourning and Ewing, into coming along this time. A native Zairean, Mutombo has toured Africa extensively during the past few offseasons, and says he'd love to see basketball offer a diversion for a continent that has more than its share of misery at the moment.
"It's so sad what's going on in my continent right now," said Mutombo, who speaks five African languages, along with English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. "We need to learn how to live in peace. People say the outside world has to come in and rescue Africa. But I think it's Africans who have to do it themselves."
Mutombo hasn't been able to visit his family in Zaire since leaving his native country seven years ago. He says he fears the security forces of the erratic dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. "You hear stories about armies going around raiding hospitals, looting little incubators where premature babies are kept. It's crazy."
Yet he plans to keep coming back to Africa, and perhaps to make it to Zaire next trip. "You can't forget where you came from," he said.
There's also plenty of work yet to be done on this continent in the realm of basketball. After one young girl made an unlikely basket at today's clinic, Ewing leaned over and raised up his hands, hoping to give her a big high-five. At first she stared at him, blankly. Then she extended her own hand for a conventional handshake.
Five years, minimum.