American Basketballers Find Their Dream Teams in Africa
Reggie Moore rarely gets through a day without stopping for an autograph or selfie in the basketball-mad African country of Angola.
“If I'm in the mall, it's going to be 30 to 40 selfies,” said Moore, a bearded 36-year-old Californian who plays in Angola's professional league and also for its national team. “It's kind of nice to have a country that knows who you are.”
For Moore, representing an African country is a little like playing on a Dream Team. And he's not the only American to seek out the African experience.
Africa generally exports basketball players to the United States, but a handful of American professionals have gone the other way. The African championship, known as AfroBasket, began its knockout stage Thursday in Tunisia and features several Americans who were granted citizenship to play for African teams.
It's probably their only shot at international glory or the Olympics. Basketball governing body FIBA allows one naturalized citizen per roster.
“I feel at home,” said Clevin Hannah, a Wichita State alum and point guard for Senegal. “I don't feel out of synch or out of place when I put my jersey on. It's an honor.”
Stipends cover costs but there's generally no compensation for international duty. Some countries and team sponsors pledge to pay bonuses for winning, however.
A second passport can open doors because some pro leagues limit Americans. But most say the real value is the experience, both on and off the court.
Against Egypt, Hannah set up teammate Hamady Ndiaye for a third-quarter alley-oop that sent supporters in Dakar's Marius Ndiaye Stadium into a frenzy.
“There's nothing like it,” Hannah said of the atmosphere as celebrations continued in the stands after the game. “It can't compare to Europe or the U.S.”
A'Darius Pegues, who played at Campbellsville University in Kentucky, said he “jumped at the opportunity” to play for Uganda, although his first visit to the East African country is only planned for after AfroBasket.
Like Pegues, many American players have little connection with their new countries.
In the African championship's early rounds in Senegal last week, the 6-foot-10 center also was unfamiliar with the heat - there's no air conditioning in the Dakar arena.
“After that first game, I got to the hotel, I was clearly dehydrated,” Pegues said. “I'm not an excuses guy but being realistic, the air in there, either you're here and you're used to it, or you have to be prepared to drink 20 bottles of water.”
Another adjustment for Americans is the physical play. Jimmy Williams recalled being clobbered on a drive to the basket during his first game for Togo.
“The ref told me, ‘Welcome to Africa,’” said Williams, who played at Alderson Broaddus University, a Division II school in West Virginia.
Togo's qualification for the 2011 AfroBasket sparked celebrations in the streets of the capital Lome.
“It's one of my best memories,” Williams said.
It's not all celebrations. Shortly after moving to Angola, Moore went looking for a hamburger in the wrong neighborhood in the capital Luanda, a sprawling city of about 6 million people.
“Two people on a motorcycle. Guns out. ‘Give me your phone, give me your money.’ You've got to give it up,” he said.
The poverty is apparent. Moore's first memory of touching down in Angola, an oil-rich former Portuguese colony in southern Africa, was seeing tin shacks near the runway. People on the street often ask him for taxi money; he usually complies. Moore grew up near Fresno and as a kid thought life was tough. Not anymore.
“You realize there are people who have it a lot worse. It makes you appreciate the things you have in life,” Moore said.
The 29-year-old Hannah, who grew up in Mississippi, visited Goree Island in Senegal, a point of departure during the Atlantic slave trade. He wonders if he has Senegalese ancestors.
“These could be some of my family members here that I'm walking past every day,” said Hannah, who is African-American. “It's a sight to see. So many black people.”
The American pros in Africa typically land gigs through networking. Hannah and the Senegal national team coach had the same agent. An injury left a spot open before the 2016 Olympic qualifiers.
When Moore's team in Spain stopped paying players in 2008, he remembered that a former teammate had urged him to come to Luanda. A professional club there matched his $14,000 per-month salary. Moore speaks Portuguese, and his wife works with orphanages.
The Angolan women's national team also has an American, Italee Lucas. She played at the University of North Carolina.
American coaches get in on the act, too. Will Voigt led the Nigerian men's team to the 2015 AfroBasket title, and former NBA player Sam Vincent helmed the Nigerian women's team to victory last month.
Uganda hired George Galanopoulos, a 28-year-old assistant coach for the G-League Texas Legends, to lead the team through just its second AfroBasket. The Ugandans went 0-3 but each game was tight, and they took 11-time champion Angola to overtime.
“Hopefully, I can stay involved,” Galanopoulos said. “It would be great to help put Ugandan basketball on the map.”