In 1984 Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon became the first player born on the African continent to reach the NBA.
A steady flow of African-born players have followed "The Dream" to the NBA in the 26 years since his debut (23 according to a recent story by John Reid of New Orleans' Times Picayune) and countless others have played Division I college basketball.
But never before have so many promising prospects from African nations found their way to the United States to play high school basketball. Of the top 100 players in the 2011 and 2012 classes, as well as the top 50 in 2013, nine are from the countries of Nigeria, Senegal and Sudan.
"It's just a better opportunity for these kids here," said United Faith Christian Academy (Charlotte, N.C.) basketball coach Shaun Wiseman, whose roster features four international players including 7-footer Peter Jurkin of Sudan. "They get developed as a basketball player and get an education. In our situation, we see it as a ministry. It's outreach to help not only basketball players, but soccer players or a regular student."
The Bloomington, Indiana-based A-HOPE Foundation (African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education) is at the forefront of the movement, bringing 22 teenagers from six African countries and Colombia to the United States since 2003.
The A-HOPE Foundation is a non-profit organization that aids in securing student visas, booking travel and identifying prospective schools.
UCLA's Alfred Aboya, who helped the Bruins reach two Final Fours, and Michigan State's Idong Ibok are among the major-college success stories. According to the A-HOPE Foundation website, eight others have made their way to Division I basketball programs.
The organization's 2012 class is the most promising to date with a trio of post players standing 6-foot-10 or taller, as well as Colombian Hanner Perea – another top-flight prospect in Wiseman's United Faith program being courted by Baylor and Indiana.
The current A-HOPE Foundation students are spread out at schools in Nebraska, North Carolina and West Virginia, but four of them – Deng Leek, Obij Aget, Jurkin and Perea – compete for the Adidas-sponsored and Bloomington-based Indiana Elite travel team. A-HOPE Foundation president Mark Adams is a coach for Indiana Elite and his son, Drew, is the Director of Operations/Video Coordinator at Indiana University under Tom Crean.
A-HOPE Foundation alumni Tijan Jobe ended up at IU in 2008 after stops at two junior colleges and completed his eligibility with the 2009-10 season.
A second A-HOPE alum, Emmanuel Negedu, was reportedly interested in transferring to the program after a cardiac event took him out of action at Tennessee. According to the Knoxville News Sentinel, the Hoosiers declined due to medical concerns.
Calls and e-mails to Mark Adams – as well as inquiries through the A-HOPE Foundation website – regarding this story were not returned.
Bridging the gap
Schools like United Faith aren't allowed to recruit and don't have the reach to attract student-athletes from overseas. A-HOPE's mission is to bridge the gap between parties.
"They contacted the school and said they had heard good things about our basketball program," Wiseman said. "You get a reputation once you take in one international kid, treat him right and move him on to the next level.
"I'd be taking 15-20 calls a month trying to place international kids. It's crazy to be honest with you. I can't have whole team of international kids, so I had to draw a line."
Aside from the obvious positives of having a 7-footer like Jurkin – a sophomore who is drawing recruiting interest from programs like Clemson, North Carolina, Tennessee and Indiana – in the lineup, Wiseman says the experience extends beyond basketball.
"We love having international kids," Wiseman said. "The kids here at United Faith go to school with a kid born in Sudan every day. How cool is that? That is life experience. They would have no idea what this kid has been through (otherwise). It's a blessing."
United Faith has also featured plenty of home-grown talent in recent years, including Florida State-bound star guard Ian Miller this season. But Wiseman sees a greater sense of urgency to succeed in his international contingent, which also included a Serbian (Nemanja Mikic, George Washington University) and a Canadian (Kadeem Green, Missouri) in 2009-10 in addition to underclassmen Jurkin and Perea.
"They are focused. They are here to get an education and they are here to play basketball," Wiseman said. "They are very driven.
"With Peter, if it was an American student going through some of the challenges that he faces (academically), they wouldn't work as hard to overcome that. He works hard and he does hours upon hours of homework. English is not his first language but it has got a whole lot better."
Dotting the map
The trend doesn't end at United Faith or with the A-HOPE Foundation.
MaxPreps profiled Angelo Chol of San Diego's Hoover High School two years ago. Chol made his way to the United States from Sudan as a 7-year old after a brief stop in Egypt and has become one of the elite prospects in the 2011 class.
Nebraska state champion Omaha Central (Omaha, Neb.) is home to 6-7 freshman Akoy Agau, while Roosevelt in Des Moines, Iowa, features fellow frosh Peter Jok and senior brother Dau Jok. Like Chol, Agau and the Jok brothers all hail from Sudan.
A second African-born sensation in the San Diego area emerged at the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad, 7-foot, 210-pound freshman Cheikh Ndiaye.
In addition to Olajuwon, Nigeria has been the launch point for the NBA careers of Yinka Dare, Obinna Okezie, Michael Olowokandi and Olumide Oyedeji.
A new wave of Nigerian big men is taking shape with 6-10 junior Nnanna Egwu of St. Ignatius (Chicago, Ill.), 6-9 sophomore Emmanuel Ochenje of Brehm Prep (Carbondale, Ill.) and 7-0 Joseph Uchebo of Oak Ridge Military Academy (Oak Ridge, N.C.), another sophomore who is already committed to North Carolina State University.
A pair of freshmen with Nigerian roots also earned a spot on the radar this season. Semi Ojeleye of Ottawa, Kan., and BeeJay Anya of DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) were both born in the United States but their parents immigrated from Nigeria.
Five other elite prospects not from Africa in the classes of 2011, 2012 and 2013 were born outside of the United States. Canadians Khem Birch, Myck Kabongo and Junior Lomomba, Wanna Bail of The Bahamas and the aforementioned Colombian Hanner Perea all add to an increasing international feel in high school basketball.
"Every one of those kids has a story," Wiseman said. "It's neat to really neat to see it all intertwined. We have a unique situation that I'm very blessed to be a part of."
High School Basketball's International Movement
Elite, foreign-born basketball prospects in the classes of 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Khem Birch, 2012, Winchendon (Winchendon, Mass.)
Myck Kabongo, 2011, Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.)
Junior Lomomba, 2012, Madison Memorial (Madison, Wis.)
Hanner Perea, 2012, United Faith Christian Academy (Charlotte, N.C.)
Nnanna Egwu, 2011, St. Ignatius (Chicago, Ill.)
Emmanuel Ochenje, 2012, Brehm Prep (Carbondale, Ill.)
Joseph Uchebo, 2012, Oak Ridge Military Academy (Oak Ridge, N.C.)
Cheikh Ndiaye, 2013, Army-Navy (Carlsbad, Calif.)
Akoy Agau, 2013, Omaha Central (Omaha, Neb.)
Obij Aget, 2012, Mountain State Academy (Beckley, W. Va.)
Angelo Chol, 2011, Hoover [Herbert] (San Diego, Calif.)
Peter Jok, 2013, Roosevelt [Theodore] (Des Moines, Iowa)
Peter Jurkin, 2012, United Faith Christian Academy (Charlotte, N.C.)
Wanna Bail, 2012, Trent Internationale (Sugar Land, Texas)