Rondae Hollis-Jefferson must have been thrilled with the news; when the training camp for Brooklyn Nets opened, his new position would be that of the starting power forward. The third year NBA star had improved from starting just 17 games in his rookie season, to starting a healthier 50 games last season. But he must have wondered a bit whether that is about to change, as the Nets went about restructuring the team in the summer.
The arrival of Timofey Mozgov and DeMarre Carroll meant that the Nets frontcourt became crowded, and Hollis-Jefferson, who is not famous for his ability to knock down jumpers, was looking at a place on the bench. That is until Kenny Atkinson expressed enough confidence to announce his name as a possible starter. The thrill felt by the former Arizona Wildcat star, must have been close to the one he had experienced days earlier as a coach at the Basketball Without Borders Camp in Johannesburg, when he was blown away by the sheer energy of the campers.
“I was really excited to be (there), to get that experience. It was my first time in Africa which is great, to be able to see the different cultures, different people, how they interact with people. The energy was phenomenal. They were not speaking the same languages. It’s kind of difficult but I know that one thing that I can see is energy. Kids love energy. So, I just yell and scream and say let’s go! …”
Like almost every one of the past NBA stars who had been a part of the programme, the sheer magnitude of the unfolding story of the game and the league on the African continent, went down as an amazing experience. For the most part, the American crowd, who had been more exposed to American Football and Baseball, apart from Basketball, usually find the stories of African NBA stars who grew up training for other sports, before developing Basketball skills interesting. Hollis-Jefferson was not one of those. He recognised that children of all cultures need any activity, to dissipate the usually limitless energy, and sport of any kind is always a sure way to achieve that goal:
“(The BWB programme) is big. It’s definitely big to see. We talked about how football is big here, that is American Soccer. In a lot of occasions we go to see them play soccer all the time; but to build basketball in Africa, guys like me, Kemba (Walker) and all those NBA players’ been giving back. It’s great to be here and to be a part of this because kids love to play sports no matter what it is, if it’s running or jumping. They just want to be active, have a better life and have fun while doing it and I feel like it (basketball) will grow.”
The trip to Africa, and the roster place with Team World also afforded the Chester, Pennsylvania native, the chance to experience what he described as the rare pleasure of playing alongside Dallas Mavericks’ German great, Dirk Nowitzki. He insisted it was an honour to play alongside the man he described as, “definitely a legend in my eyes, everyone’s eyes”.
The fun and thrills, however, were not limited to the basketball courts. While the Nets forward had fun with the kids, he also found personal excitement in the other activities surrounding the sporting events that dominated the headlines.
“We first of all (went) to the (Apartheid) museum to see those things and (experience) how the culture is. It’s humbling, it’s definitely humbling to be able to witness that in that aspect. Now you have to look at things differently especially when you’re coming from the States where life is completely different, (from the standpoint of) a lot of things we take for granted. I just feel like this is great to be able to experience this.”
And then came the final test of his African experience; Rondae was asked to pick a center out of the two African giants that are legends not just on the continent, but also in the NBA: Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon.
The laughter which preceded his choice was borne more out of nervousness than mirth at being made to choose between a rock and a hard place. But Rondae managed to make a choice, and he made sure to carefully give reasons; as if distraught at been forced to pick between the two legends: “Dikembe (Mutombo). Definitely I’ve been hanging out with him all week, and he would be like… mad at me forever if I went against him. So, sorry, I’m going to have to go with Dikembe”
The choice to come to Africa and be a part of the NBA Africa and the BWB programme were also his choices, and the good feelings from that decision will be sure to linger with Rondae for a long time.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi