The NBA first game on African soil produced a couple of surprises.
First was the brief un-retirement of the two best basketball players from Africa to play in the NBA: 52-year-old Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon and 49-year-old future Hall of Fame center Dikembe Mutombo.
Second was the fact that a game that seemed stacked on the side of Team World was actually close. All-Star guards Chris Paul and Bradley Beal, and forward Jeff Green (team-high 19 points) led Team World to a victory, as expected, but the 101-97 score was closer than many predicted.
Along with Olajuwon, who is a practicing Muslim, four of the NBA’s active Muslim players saw action in the Aug. 1 exhibition at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried came off the bench for Team World, finishing with nine points and four rebounds. Minnesota Timberwolves center/PF Gorgui Dieng started for Team Africa, putting up 12 points, 11 rebounds and two steals. Portland Trail Blazers small forward Al-Farouq Aminu (7 pts, 15 rebs, 2 stls) and free agent center Nazr Mohammed (2 pts, 2 rebs) also came off the bench for Team Africa.
On paper, Team World appeared to be built for a blowout. The hand-picked squad featured Paul (Los Angeles Clippers), Beal (Washington Wizards), Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol and Chicago Bulls PF Pau Gasol, all 2015 NBA All-Stars. Green (Grizzlies) rounded out the starting five. Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke, Boston Celtics swingman Evan Turner and Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic came off the bench, along with Faried.
Team Africa was made up of players who were either born in Africa, or whose parents were born in Africa: Dieng, Aminu, Mohammed, Miami Heat SF Luol Deng, Timberwolves SF Nicolas Batum, free agent SF Luc Mbah a Moute, Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli, Milwaukee Bucks SF Giannis Antetokounmpo, San Antonio Spurs PF Boris Diaw and Toronto Raptors center Bismack Biyombo. Even worse for Team Africa, Oklahoma City PF Serge Ibaka, one of the best players on the roster, did not play as he’s recovering from knee surgery.
But despite being seemingly overmatched in talent, Team Africa struck early and led most of the way. They were up by as much as 20 at one point, and was still ahead in the fourth quarter before Team World went on a 14-0 run to come back and claim the victory.
In the second quarter, the story of the night began to unfold when Mutombo and Olajuwon — originally at the game working as ambassadors off the court — took the court wearing their old uniforms; Olajuwon representing the Houston Rockets, and Mutombo representing the Nuggets. Olajuwon scored on a fadeaway jump shot in the lane over the 24-year-old, 7-foot Vucevic. Mutombo didn’t score, but grabbed three rebounds. Neither retires superstar played more than four minutes.