Mar 30, 2020 - Sports

The shady world of African hoops recruiting

UC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye (L) and UCF's Tacko Fall, both of Senegal, meet in a 2015 NCAA game. Photo: Alex Menendez/Getty Images

Joel Embiid. Pascal Siakam. Serge Ibaka. Those are three of the 15 active NBA players from Africa, and they represent an ever-strengthening link between African talent and American hoops.

Yes, but: According to a year-long "60 Minutes" investigation, countless other African players who have come to the U.S. as teenagers to chase their hoop dreams have been lost in a tangled web of deception.

What they're saying: The Africa-to-U.S. basketball trail "is littered with corrupt fly-by-night high schools and shadowy middlemen and academies that mislead families, run roughshod over immigration rules and sometimes commit federal crimes," per SI, which published an accompanying report.

How it works: For African teens to come to the U.S. legally, they must secure an I-20 visa, which allows them to study at a specific high school. But only certain institutions — like the since-shutdown Evelyn Mack Academy in Charlotte — are authorized to distribute these visas, making them hubs of illicit recruitment.

  • There have been 75 cases in which a middleman paid Evelyn Mack $1,000 per visa to get a certain player into the country.
  • Once the teenager lands, they're whisked away to another school in another state (whichever school the middleman works with/for) and then they're on their own. It's awful.

Horror stories:

  • Blessing Ejiofor of Nigeria arrived in 2014 at the age of 15, "so excited" to attend such a beautiful school, which Evelyn Mack purported to be on its fake website. But when she got off the plane, a coach met her and took her to East Side High School in Patterson, New Jersey. Somehow, Blessing landed on her feet and is now a junior starter at West Virginia.
  • Christian Mulumba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo arrived in 2016, headed for the West Virginia Prep Academy. Turns out, it was fake. He and others in his position "had little food and were forced to sleep on the floor of a tiny, unfurnished apartment." Christian ultimately left with nothing but a terrible experience.
  • One middleman in the Midwest became the legal guardian of the two players he recruited. Once they arrived in the U.S., he made them sign contracts entitling himself to 40% of their future earnings.

Looking ahead: The "60 Minutes" investigation, which helped lead to the closure of Evelyn Mack and the conviction of its owner, was undoubtedly a boon to kids like Christian and Blessing, and the NBA's soon-to-launch Basketball Africa League will hopefully bring more transparency and integrity to this pipeline.

  • There's more work to be done, but what began so innocently in the 1980s with Hakeem Olajuwon and reached its nadir in the 2010s with a vast network of nefarious middlemen, seems to finally be turning a corner.

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