The NBA put on a show in its first exhibition game in Africa on Saturday – starting with a dunk straight from the tip-off by Luc Mbah a Moute.
That had the crowd roaring early at Ellis Park Arena in downtown Johannesburg. It got even louder when African NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo stripped off their business suits to don their old team uniforms again and play for a little while in the second quarter.
The 52-year-old Olajuwon, in a Houston No. 34 jersey, pulled off a turn-around jumper – the “Dream Shake” – that had the current NBA stars leaping off the benches with their arms in the air.
“That’s one of the most memorable experiences ever,” said Chris Paul, one of the team captains. “I told Dream, if he’s still moving like that at his age now, I couldn’t imagine him in his day.”
After a relaxed first half, the game got serious in the second: Paul’s Team World rallied with a 14-0 run in the fourth quarter to beat Luol Deng’s “home” Team Africa 101-97.
“In the second half we decided enough was enough and we needed to do a lot better if we didn’t want to lose by 40,” Team World’s Pau Gasol said.
Washington’s Bradley Beal led Team World with 18 points while Paul had 12. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo had 22 points for Team Africa, with Deng adding 20.
But this game was largely about the entertainment factor, with cheerleaders and several NBA team mascots mixing it up with the South African crowd.
It was an amazing experience. So proud to be able to represent the continent.
– Boris Diaw
Even the timeouts were used for stunts: Team Africa coach Gregg Popovich took one in the second quarter that wasn’t used for a team talk, but to give everyone a chance to watch fans breakdance alongside San Antonio mascot Coyote, Philadelphia’s Franklin, and Atlanta’s Harry the Hawk. Even Popovich, the five-time NBA winning coach, had a big grin.
At the start of the third quarter, Paul decided that was enough fooling around, hitting three straight 3-pointers to bring the “visiting” team back. Team Africa, made up of players born in Africa or with African heritage, couldn’t hold off the late surge.
“We didn’t finish the game. But there’s still room for improvement,” Team Africa’s Boris Diaw of the San Antonio Spurs said, hoping for another chance to play for an African lineup. “It was an amazing experience. So proud to be able to represent the continent.”
After Jeff Green’s dunk and a layup by Evan Turner, Team World was suddenly leading 85-78 in the fourth and the South African crowd had a proper game. Team World led 99-97 with a couple of seconds to go when Green was fouled and made both free throws to seal the game.
The South African exhibition was the NBA’s biggest step into Africa so far, and could be the pre-cursor to a preseason and maybe even a regular season game on the continent, according to Commissioner Adam Silver.
“For me, as a kid, (I wanted) to play basketball and never had the access to meet NBA players, or watch NBA,” said Deng, who was born in South Sudan. “Now to be part of a team coming back to play for Africa. I can’t describe it.”
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