Anchor Lisa Mullins speaks with Alexander Wolfe, author of "Big Game, Small World," about the world of NCAA basketball and its growing reach into other countries for new talent. Four players in this year's Final Four teams are from Africa.
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LISA MULLINS: March Madness is about to turn absolutely crazy. The semi-finals of the NCAA basketball tournament come on Saturday. Those games are going to pit North Carolina against Villanova and Michigan State against the University of Connecticut. The winners will compete in the title game on Monday. Now Connecticut's â€œbig manâ€ is big, indeed. Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet stands seven-foot-three. Thabeet is one of four African players on the final four teams. Alexander Wolfe is author of â€œBig Game, Small Worldâ€. He is now at the studios of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont. How on earth did these players from, say, Tanzania or Cameroon get from their fields to college stadiums in places like Villanova or University of Connecticut?
ALEXANDER WOLFE: Well, 20 or 25 years ago it would have been just serendipity. It would have been a State Department or Peace Corps worker who happened to be over there and might know someone back in the States, and one thing would lead to another. But that's all changed. With satellite TV, the game has gone so global that NBA teams now have scouts everywhere in countries like Senegal and Nigeria. There are summer exposure camps that not just NBA scouts go to but some of the elite Division I programs, like those that turn up in the Final Four every year, they know. What's been interesting recently is where you would see a lot of Western Europeans playing for NCAA schools, you don't see that so much anymore because there's so much more money to be made in Western Europe playing club basketball, you don't need to go to the States. But Africans still, you know, that chance of a free college education is a very powerful lure.
MULLINS: Where do you see that happening most? I mean, we mentioned this particular player from Tanzania, but are there particular countries that are rich in prospects?
WOLFE: It breaks down somewhat if you go back to the colonial era. Those countries that were under British rule tend to have more of a cricketing and soccer culture, and you're not going to find a whole lot of basketball infrastructure there. Countries like Senegal and Nigeria do have basketball traditions and basketball infrastructures -- so those are countries that actually have coaches, they have exposure camps. The scouts can simply go over there and pick and choose.
MULLINS: And is it mostly American scouts or are they being scouted elsewhere for basketball talent?
WOLFE: Well, now there's so much money in Western Europe, and the quality of club basketball there is high enough that they will go right down to Africa and look to find young prospects.
MULLINS: And what have you seen as the sticky area here? In terms of promise that's being held out to people coming in from outside the United States, specifically Africa?
WOLFE: What you have in a country like Nigeria or a country like Senegal is you have some pretty savvy middlemen operators, who have their contacts in the States and know where the young talent is. And I think the danger is in some of those go-betweens taking advantage of this young talent. You see that a little bit in baseball in the Caribbean, where you have middlemen â€“ some with good intentions, others with maybe not such good intentions.
MULLINS: Among other reasons, there's one in particular â€“ a personal story â€“ as to why you know so much, as does your wife, about recruiting in Africa. What's the reason?
WOLFE: About three years ago, my wife and I started a pro basketball team â€“ the Vermont Frosties. And our coach, who had done some international scouting, came upon a guy in Nigeria named Charles O'Quandu and really wanted to sign him for our team. We went about the process of meeting with an immigration lawyer and dealing with Charles's representatives in Nigeria, and realized that it would be just a little bit too challenging to get him a work visa, but sure enough, there's Charles O'Quandu on the University of Connecticut's roster for this final four.
MULLINS: Right. Reserve center Charles O'Quandu. Could it been one of the Frosties of where in Vermont?
WOLFE: We play in Burlington and Barrie, Vermont.
MULLINS: All right. Alexander Wolfe, senior writer at Sports Illustrated magazine. We know what you and many other folks are going to be doing this coming weekend. Thanks for keeping an eye on it for us. Thank you very much, Alex.