Ruth Riley Spreads Message of Basketball: Part Two
I am embarrassed to admit that I had never even heard of Namibia before this year, and thus my research began. Had I been a faithful subscriber to People magazine, I probably would have known that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt put this beautiful hidden African nation on the forefront of global awareness by deciding to have their daughter, Shiloh, there in May 2006. From that point on, tourism started to boom, as travelers learned about the breathless landscape of the Skeleton Coast, where endless dunes literally melt into the amazing coastline. For those of you who will never have the opportunity to travel there, I am enclosing some photos!
For such a small state, Namibia has a very complex heritage. I was surprised to find that there was a heavy German influence throughout the country dating back to 1885 when European nations started diving up the continent of Africa amongst themselves. Add to that the international turmoil caused by neighboring South Africa as it flexed its dominance through South West Africa during Apartheid, and you have a country that is still striving to find its own identity since its recent independence in 1990.
Charles Nyambe, director of the Special Olympics Africa, picked me up from the airport in Windhoek and started briefing me on the history of basketball in his country. We stopped by a gym where a group of older men were playing, similar to our “noonball” crew back in the US. Charles, who still plays on occasion was revered with an immense amount of respect in the gym because he had coached generations of these players over the years. As we left, Charles explained to me that basketball basically died after the generation of those in the gym grew up due to necessity for providing for their families, political turmoil, and a period of time when the minister of sport no longer valued basketball. Imagine if almost all of the coaches in the United States disappeared, the entire generation of players suddenly stopped playing, and then fast forward 20 years and that is where Namibia finds itself today. We would still have all the courts, we would have a percentage of the population who knows and loves the game, but the obstacle would be how to resurrect the sport from there? It has been said, “If you build it, they will come” but you must do more than build it . . . you have to provide coaches and an organized system for them to operate in!!
A quite unlikely character, Coach Frank Albin from the German Basketball Federation, now enters into the picture. He has devoted the last few years trying to revive basketball in Namibia by organizing mini-basketball for the youth and by developing The Basketball Arts School. The school is a multi-faceted program that focuses first on education and tutoring and then on arts and sport. When resources are lacking, creativity can sometimes fill the void, a perfect example of that is the dribbling routine that Frank has taught his kids. These 10 year-olds can handle the rock like Steve Nash, only with a unique flare!! They demonstrated their entire rhythmic ball-handing routine for me, which consists of very difficult ball-handing skills that are set to a specific beat. It was truly amazing!! It only took me an afternoon to fall in love with these kids! They are unbelievably respectful, smart, hardworking and have a great energy and spirit about them. I understand why some will walk over an hour a day to take part in this after school program, not only is it an escape from their reality, it provides them with a very narrow road to success in life!!
As I reflect back, I am truly amazed how the landscape of a sport can change by a simple two-hour flight. My teammate, Epiphany Prince, grew up playing ball on the unforgiving cement courts of Brooklyn, while just two hours away I was raised playing on dirt courts with a hoop on the side of a barn! My girls in South Africa were limited by the sparse number of facilities for them to play, and two hours away the kids have courts on every corner like we have Starbucks in the States, just no one to teach them! I have so much respect for people like Charles and Frank, who are not only passionate about the game of basketball, but who are willing to sacrifice their time to invest in the youth . . . knowing that is the only way that one day the pulse of basketball in their country will once again be beating strong!