Tunisia’s sole representative in the NBA, Salah Mejri, had an important message to pass onto the next generation of superstars bursting to come out of Africa onto the world scene: basketball is a game for smart people. The Dallas Mavericks center, who played his first game for Team Africa in Johannesburg at the second ever NBA Africa Game, was unequivocal about the need for African youngsters who want to go far in the game, to ensure they get a good education, while waiting for their basketball careers to bloom.
“Education is very important, that is always my first advice for (players coming to my camp). Every year I give a speech to the kids before the camps, I tell them the importance of education you know”. To further buttress the point, he pointed at himself, and told the story of how education helped him achieve his goals.
“I finished my studies (electrical engineering). Basketball is a game for smart people, if you are not smart you can’t play basketball. Maybe other sports, yes. But basketball? It’s hard. I was studying, if I wasn’t studying I would not be discovered, and this career would not have been possible. I was good in school and that helped me a lot. In basketball you have a short time (on the court) to make smart decisions, you have to be at the right place at the right time”.
Mejri didn’t stop there. The multi-lingual player, who grew up in Tunis speaking Arabic and French, advocated a knowledge of the English language for francophone youngsters looking to make a career in basketball, “You also have to learn English, it is very important so you can go to play anywhere; English is the first language of the world”.
And Mejri should know, given how his journey began in Tunis. A journey that has since his career become a landmark in his native Tunisia. “Being Tunisian in the NBA is nice, maybe because I’m the first Tunisian to make the NBA. I’m really happy to be there and I’m happy to be here to teach some of these kids.”
“It’s funny because I started playing basketball when I was 18. I started with Etoile Sportive du Sahel which is a huge team in Africa and in Tunisia, I played there for five years. Then I went to Belgium for two years with Antwerp Giants, then Spain with Obradoiro, then Real (Madrid) for two years; then went to the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks”
Mejri, like all of the NBA stars that made the journey to Johannesburg, did not just visit the south of Africa to play in the NBA Africa Game. All of them also came to impart knowledge at the Basketball Without Borders Camp as well as inspire the nation as a part of the community programmes. And the affable Mejri let it be known that he was as pleased to share with the kids, as he was to play in the NBA Africa Game.
“It’s always nice working with the kids. It’s not the first time, doing this. I did two camps, like my camps, back home in Tunisia last year and in Tunisia and Egypt this year; last year in Angola with the BWB and this year too in the BWB in South Africa, and I’m always happy to do this, I’m always happy to help the kids you know”.
Along with the camps, the ‘proudly north African’ NBA star was also quick to point to the growth of the game in the north, has he hopes to see a visible surge in north African players like that of the sub-Saharan talent that has been showing up in the NBA, “Africa is growing in basketball. In Tunisia too, basketball is growing. It’s not only like in Senegal, Nigeria and Angola (that the game is growing). In the north of Africa, Tunisia and Morocco (basketball) is growing, along with Egypt”.
And the erudite Tunisian puts it all in perspective with the next statement, “And that has to start with the kids you know. If we don’t have good youth, then we have no future. Because I’m from Tunisia, (I can say) we have a good team now. But down the road like three, four five years, this generation will finish and we have to prepare something for the future. And I think that is the case for all Africans, and we have a couple of players (from Africa) in the NBA now, why can’t we have more players who start from here (the BWB camp) and play in the NBA?”
And because he is forever eager to let the world know about the progress being made in the north of the continent, Mejri again went back home, to show proof that this critical part of the game’s development is not being left to chance, “We have people who have been working hard, like the (FTTB) President Ali (Benzarti) who has put in a lot of work at the Federation for young teams and also the senior national teams. He has been at the federation for a long time and that has helped a lot. He has been doing a great job. My going to the NBA has also given hope to a lot of kids you know; If I started at 18 and made it to Real Madrid and I’m now in the NBA, they are asking ‘why not us? Everybody is getting (encouragement from my journey), and I’m really happy to do that for the kids”.
At the end of it, Mejri again went back to education: it’s importance, and more of his own efforts to ensure he did his bit, to ensure the African child is not left behind, as the game continues to expand globally, “And in my camp, we are trying to help these kids go to study in the US, get scholarships and chances for camps like these. So we are trying to help, with the federation of course; we are trying to help the game grow in our country”.
Despite these efforts, there are downsides, “To be honest, we had difficulties bringing a player last year, but a player is here (at the BWB camp) this year. Last year we tried to bring a player from Tunisia to the US, but he was not dedicated enough to go, that was the problem”. A problem he hopes will continue to fade, as more talent makes the transition from the BWB camps, into the NBA.
After all the talk about the league which tips off mid-October, the talk switched to another competition which is closer not only in tip-off date, but is also closer to home. The FIBA Africa Men’s Championship, also known as Afrobasket. “I’m not a part of the team for the moment. We are still deciding whether I would play or not. I would love to play, I would love to be a part of the team especially as Afrobasket is at Senegal and Tunisia this year. I would love to be a part of it. We now have a great chance to win it. The team I played with, we deserved to win more than the one African title we won in 2011, so I think with or without me, we have a big chance to win it”.
Famous final words; because the other teams are also hoping to win, just like Mejri.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
@booday10 on Twitter