Basketball Without Borders: One of these kids could be the next Thon or Giannis

Andy Withers
KweséESPN Senior Editor

“It’s not just a job. We have to have fun with it, and we definitely do.”

Khris Middleton is forthright when asked about the visible sense of fun and enjoyment among the NBA players on the opening day of the 2018 Basketball Without Borders Africa camp in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

Indeed, the smiles of the NBA players at the American International School in Midrand were every bit as broad as those of the boys and girls they had travelled all this way to coach and mentor.

The Milwaukee Bucks swingman has been involved previously in international coaching programs, in the Philippines and Australia, where he headlined the Basketball Without Borders Asia camp in Melbourne three years ago, and he says NBA players recognize the need to give back to the game that makes them headline attractions.

“This isn’t a job for us,” Middleton says of his attendance of the program that officially ’embodies Nelson Mandela’s’ legacy and belief that sport can inspire and change the world.’

The 16th Basketball Without Borders Africa camp showcases 78 of the top boys and girls from 29 African countries.

“Each and every one of us has been through something. We’ve been scouted, we’ve been around NBA players, NBA cultures that’s helped us get to that next level, so it’s very nice to be in a position where I can do the same,” Middleton says. “We have to give back. We have to try to grow the game. We have to try to make the game better than it was when we came in … it’s a great job to have to try to spread the game, to spread joy, to help anybody out.”

Middleton has never before been to Africa, but he knows a little about the continent as he knows so well the stories of Milwaukee Bucks teammates Giannis Antetokounmpo and Thon Maker. The Greece-born Antetokounmpo is the son of immigrants from Nigeria, while Maker made his way to the NBA from the war zone in South Sudan via Australia, the Carlisle School in Martinsville, Virginia, and Canada.

“Giannis is definitely proud about his Nigerian heritage, with his mother and father being from there and immigrating to Greece, and … Thon’s a guy who’s bounced all over the world. Thon’s been through a lot, and he came out alive.

“Looking at these kids and knowing that one of them could be the next Thon Maker or Giannis Antetokounmpo is great,” Middleton says.

Not lost on Middleton is the fact that 28 previous Basketball Without Borders alumni have gone on to play in the NBA, including 2018 Team World teammate Danilo Gallinari and Team Africa’s Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid.

“To talk to the kids and get everybody interactive and going, that’s what it’s about,” Middleton says. “This game can help to shape so many people, stay out of trouble, make new friends, it’s nice to be here.”

Middleton knows he’s here to coach and mentor, for community outreach and to build places to live. But there’s also the small matter of bragging rights at the third NBA Africa Game to be played in Pretoria on Saturday.

Team Africa is yet to taste success, and Middleton doesn’t want to be on the first losing Team World roster on his first visit to Africa.

“There’s been some comments about the game, and how [Team Africa] haven’t won yet, so Team World we have to do a great job to try to hold that streak and make it 3-0. We can’t lose this game.”

Photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images