By Keith Giagnorio
Walking into the Basketball Without Boarders Global Camp, comprised of young men and women from over 30 different countries, it would be easy to assume that there could be many language barriers to overcome. However, with the booming noise of basketballs bouncing throughout the gymnasium, the squeaking sound of sneakers across the hardwood, or the thunderous celebration after a dunk gets thrown down, it becomes clear that the only language necessary for the weekend is the language of basketball.
Basketball Without Borders, which is organized by the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), held its sixth annual Global Camp during the All-Star weekend festivities from Friday to Sunday at Quest Multisport gymnasium on Chicago’s West Side. The camp invites the top 64 high school basketball players (32 boys and 32 girls) from all around the world to participate in the now All-Star weekend staple, giving them a chance to make new friends from across the globe, show off their skills to professional scouts, and learn from professional players and coaches.
“That’s really our big focus, is giving them the opportunity to learn from the pros,” said Chris Ebersole, the NBA’s senior director of international basketball operations & elite basketball and one of the organizers of the camp.
“We have coaches and players from the WNBA and NBA here who are working with these guys to try and pass on as much of their wisdom and their knowledge to these young players. All 30 NBA teams at some point will be in the gym scouting these players as well,” Ebersole added.
On Friday, the camp hit the ground running with various drills allowing campers to show off their diverse talents on the court. The elite skill level of these individuals could be seen immediately, with campers like 7-foot German center Ariel Hukporti throwing down powerful dunks in a close-out drill on the boys’ side, or Japanese guard Maho Hayashi knocking down three-pointer after three-pointer on the girls’ side.
The most compelling of the different drills was one that pitted campers against 7-foot-5, 311-pound Boston Celtics center Tacko Fall, daring them to drive the lane against his outstretched 8-foot wingspan.
From there, campers transitioned into scrimmage games, with NBA stars from around the globe stepping in to coach the squads. This year, All-Star starter and camp alum Pascal Siakam (Cameroon), 3-point contestant Dāvis Bertāns (Latvia), camp alum Lauri Markkanen (Finland), Bulls forward Cristiano Felicio (Brazil), and crowd favorite Fall (Senegal) headlined the weekend.
After getting the chance to observe and analyze the young players for a few hours, the visiting NBA players and the other Basketball Without Borders coaches and instructors drafted teams to compete against each other for the remainder of the weekend. Even the pros like Markkanen were impressed with the capabilities they saw on the floor.
“I don’t think I could have held my own against these guys 5 years ago. There’s a lot of talented guys here,” the Bulls forward said.
While the instruction and level of competition helps these elite young men and women elevate their game, it is the NBA stars, many of whom are former campers, who return to coach and mentor the campers that are the real life-blood of the camp.
“One thing that was eye-opening for me was coming in and seeing all these guys from the NBA” Siakam said of his experience as a camper. “You think about the NBA when you’re that young and coming from such a different place. Being in an environment like that and having them talk to you and you can see that they’re normal people and you can relate to them; I think it was pretty awesome.”
Markkanen, who participated in Basketball Without Border’s Global Camp in both 2014 and 2015 as a camper, has come back multiple times as a pro to mentor the young athletes whose shoes he was in not too long ago.
“We want to show these kids that we care, and I think this program is such a great thing, Markkanen said. “It’s always important for me to come back, and if I can help one player even, that’s good for the camp.”
The success of Basketball Without Borders alumni extends far beyond just Siakam and Markkanen though. The program has produced a total of 69 NBA players, 30 of whom are currently playing in the league.
Some of the biggest names in professional basketball such as 2020 All-Star starter Joel Embiid, former All-Star starter Marc Gasol, and ascending stars Jamal Murray, Deandre Ayton and RJ Barrett once wore the same navy and white jerseys that current campers wear now. The impact and achievements of these players has molded Basketball Without Borders into one of the NBA’s best international talent pipelines.
“For pretty much every NBA team, it’s a must-see now in order to see the next wave of draft prospects internationally,” Ebersol said.
Even though the camp puts these young basketball players on a stage that gives them the opportunity to catapult themselves to the next level, the NBA stars who return to coach and mentor at Basketball Without Borders impart a simpler piece of advice.
“I just tell them to have fun, enjoy the moment, Siakam said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”