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2017 NBA Africa Game

Marc in the Motherland: Touching down in Johannesburg

Marc J. Spears shares his week leading up to NBA Africa Game

JOHANNESBURG – I have finally crossed something important off my bucket list. I’ve stepped foot on African soil. Johannesburg to be exact.

I have heard from several Africans with NBA ties that South Africa is not truly Africa because of its notable wealth that is far from the norm on the continent. According to the country’s 2017 wealth report, South Africa is the largest wealth market on the continent and is home to 40,400 high net worth individuals with combined wealth holdings of $171 billion in American dollars.

Well, as far as this black man from the United States of America is concerned, I’m in Africa now. I’m more than thrilled about what is to come over the next few days in Johannesburg and the surrounding townships.

Why am I here? No, I’m not on vacation. C’mon, you know basketball never stops. I’m a credentialed media member of the 15th Basketball Without Borders Africa and most notably the second NBA Africa Game on Saturday in Johannesburg, which will be shown on ESPN.

The first NBA Africa Game was in 2015 in Johannesburg and was highlighted by then-Los Angeles Clippers star guard Chris Paul. The second NBA Africa exhibition contest appears to be much more star-studded. Team World includes: NBA All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker, 2011 NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, Kristaps Porzingis, C.J. McCollum, Leandro Barbosa, Jaylen Brown, Wilson Chandler, Andre Drummond and Courtney Lee. Team Africa, composed of players born in Africa and second-generation African players, includes Joel Embiid, Serge Ibaka, Luol Deng, Thabo Sefolosha, Bismack Biyombo, Clint Capela, Gorgui Dieng, Luc Mbah a Moute, Salah Mere, Emmanuel Mudiay, Victor Oladipo and Dennis Schroder. Also, starting on Wednesday the top 80 boys and girls ages 17 and under from 26 African countries will participate in Basketball without Borders Africa ahead of NBA Africa Game 2017.

My first journey to Africa began Sunday night as I departed from Washington Dulles International Airport on South Africa Airlines through Senegal to Johannesburg. The entire flight was expected to take 17 hours. Yes, 17 hours. It certainly was ironic that the flight began out of the Washington, D.C., area, considering I never really met any Africans until the one season I was on scholarship playing at the historically black University of the District of Columbia. It was there that I played with combo guard Eugene Pehoua-Pelema from Central African Republic, sharp-shooter Sammy Fatoki from Nigeria and center Amadou Gallo Fall from Senegal during the 1992-93 season before departing to finish school at San Jose State University. It was good to finally catch up with Fall. I’m really proud of what the NBA vice president and managing director of NBA Africa is doing in his homeland. The former Mavericks International scout has been pushing me to visit Africa for years. Being around my African brothers while playing with the Firebirds made me intrigued about going to “The Motherland” one day.

Well, that day has come. Being in dire need of sleep helped me on the flight. I slept most of the way to Senegal, although I did get to watch Kong: Skull Island per recommendation of my colleague Clinton Yates. That King Kong movie was better than I thought it would be, but I also found time to listen to some great South African music offered.

A flight attendant gave me The South African Star Saturday newspaper with a front-page main headline, “RACISM ROCKS SUBURBIA.” It was a story about St. John’s College in Johannesburg recently being forced to fire a teacher for racism, followed by calls for the firing of the president over his handling of the issue. Like basketball, racism never stops either.

Upon my arrival to Johannesburg, I got into my Mercedes taxi cab. Yes, taxi. The cab driver was from the township of Alexandra where Nelson Mandela hailed from. The driver proudly pointed at it as we drove by on a smooth highway that my San Francisco Bay Area friends would be envious of after fighting potholes regularly. I asked him to play some South African music and he just kept changing it to South African economic debate shows over the radio.

It’s winter here and it was dark when I got into the cab in the early evening. We drove by places familiar to my American eyes: KFC, an Amway headquarters, Shell gas stations, Mercedes and Toyota dealerships while passing through several beautiful purple-lit arches. The only unfamiliar things I saw was a rugby field and stadium, and a Muslim meat supply company advertisement.

My hotel is situated in the suburb of Rosebank with an upscale mall next door. I did see a South African coffeehouse next to my hotel. It reminds me of Beverly Hills or Walnut Creek, California. So far, this doesn’t feel dangerous as many friends warned. But when you live in Oakland, California, and have family roots in New Orleans and St. Louis, your radar is always up, so I’ll be fine.

Once I made it to the hotel, I got a chance to visit with some old NBA friends. People such as New York Knicks scouts Makhtar N’Diaye and Mark Hughes, Houston Rockets trainer and executive Keith Jones, NBA International vice president of basketball operations Kim Bohuny, former NBA player Quinn Buckner, and NBA referees Zach Zarba and James Capers.

More adventures still to come, old and new NBA friends to see, interviews for video and print. I never thought I’d come to The Motherland, and unfortunately the vast majority of it I won’t see. The more I talk to Africans, the more days I wish I had to experience their massive home. I am going to make the best of this week, but I already know I need to come back.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.