More than basketball for ex-UT players visiting Africa
By Brendan F. Quinn
A rainy day in Senegal pushed practice to an indoor court at the U.S. Embassy earlier this week. Former University of Tennessee stars C.J. Watson and Chamique Holdsclaw accompanied a crowd of children entering the small, non-descript gym. Few had ever played basketball inside, let alone in air conditioning.
The surprises didn't end there.
"So your job is just to play basketball?" a 15-year-old Senegalese girl asked Holdsclaw.
"Yes it is."
The young girl was baffled.
This wasn't curiosity. It was amazement.
Recounting the story by phone Thursday morning from South Africa, Holdsclaw chuckled and explained, "She just didn't believe me. I told her, 'Yes, people pay you to play overseas.'
"She was shocked."
Holdsclaw went on to tell her new friend that few Americans reach the professional ranks, and plenty more get a free college education. The lesson was just one of several delivered by Holdsclaw and Watson in Africa this week.
The two visited Senegal as representatives of the U.S. Department of State, which annually sends athletes and coaches overseas to conduct athletic clinics and promote education, team building and healthy activity. From Senegal, Holdsclaw and Watson traveled to South Africa for the four-day Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, which began Thursday.
"When you go on a trip like this, you don't know what to expect," said Watson, who signed as a free agent with the Brooklyn Nets after averaging 9.7 points and 4.1 assists in 23.7 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls last season. "I wanted to come here and bring these kids some of my basketball knowledge, but I've also learned a lot from them. To see their conditions and see how they're trying to make their situation better is inspiring."
Though sharing a continent, the experiences in Senegal and South Africa have been worlds apart.
In South Africa, Holdsclaw is coaching the top 25 female basketball play
ers in the country, while Watson is one of seven active NBA players working with the top 60 male athletes from across Africa. Basketball Without Borders exists to partner top youth players under 19 with NBA and WNBA players and coaches. The goal is to develop talent and foster the players' interest and knowledge of the game.
"Kids in the states would be shocked by the conditions, but these kids deal with it and they lace it up," said Holdsclaw, who led the Lady Vols to three straight national titles before becoming a six-time all-star in the WNBA. "When people say basketball is a global or an international sport, it really is. When these kids are on the court, they aren't worried about the conditions or the flies flying around or the distractions. They're locked in."
The visit to Senegal, meanwhile, displayed what Watson called, "the real Africa." The two former Vols conducted several co-ed clinics for poverty-stricken youth in the cities of Dakar and Thies and attended a high school basketball tournament."
"You just want to make their lives better," Watson lamented. "You see some kids with holes in their shoes and then you think of the kids in America complaining about shoes and always wanting more than a few pairs. Well these kids here might have one pair, and there are holes in them because they've worked so hard."
Watson and Holdsclaw's volunteer work will continue through Monday when they return stateside.
"They just want to touch you," Holdsclaw said. "We want them to know that basketball can be used as a vehicle to possibly get out of their environment. Having grown up in the inner-city myself (Queens, New York), basketball has taken me all over the world."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn