Out Of Africa

Coach Ed Smith is not a household name, even to those who follow recruiting. But, he may be one of the most intriguing figures in the world of college hoops recruiting. Unlike most coaches who hustle camps to either sign kids or get kids signed, he works with kids from refugee camps to help they make a life in America.

One of the fascinating developments of late in the world of college basketball is the influx of international players. The NBA has attracted top talent from around the world for a long time, but money is the primary factor. The NBA pays more than any other league.

For college programs, that is not an issue. Yet, we are seeing an increase in international players, particularly players from sub-Saharan Africa. The question is how they wind up in the United States, often at private high schools and academies.

One reason is faith based organizations work with private schools, churches and local relief efforts to get kids out of tough places like the Sudan into the United States. The kids who can play basketball play for these schools and get recruited by colleges.

That's not the full story. It is the tireless work of men in the coaching business that often help these kids get a chance to use basketball to build a better life. Perhaps one of the least known, but most successful is Coach Ed Smith. Based in Australia, Coach Smith has helped many kids make it from refugee camps, through Australia and into US schools, using basketball as a means to that end.

"Fourteen years ago I went to Australia. I began a program to help kids learn to play basketball," said Coach Smith." We focused on local kids at first, but then began to work with the refugees that were coming into Australia. These are kids coming from war situations. They were coming to Australia from places where war had torn apart their countries.

"I thought we could use basketball to help them academically. They could see how basketball could help them get an education. We saw it as a chance for these kids to use basketball as a way to come to the United States to get an education. We use basketball as a light to show them they have alternatives."

The simple idea has worked as Coach Smith's foundation has placed kids at U.S. colleges and highschools over the last 14 years. Familiar names like Ater Majok, Majok Majok and Mathiang Muo are recent players who have gone through Coach Smith's program to reach college in the United States.

"Most of these kids come from overseas, the math and science is a breeze. It is getting the vocabulary for English that can be a challenge. They can speak English well, but when you get to more complex things like you see on a test, that is where they need to work. That's why we like to see them come over in high school so they can get help in that area before college.

"Majok (Majok Majok) came here in 2007. His cousin (Ater Majok) is at UConn now. Majok (Majok Majok ) is an execellent student and now has a chance to go to Harvard or Stanford or any high academic school. But, he will have to work on his verbal skills so he can test well in order to get into one of those schools.

"We have a young man at Virginia State now. We have a young man at Northeastern. Majok's cousin is starting this year at UConn. We also have a kid at Sacred Heart who will get a chance to play this year. We also have kids throughout the United States at high schools now. "

Of course, the real story is not just the players that who make it to a high major basketball program. How they get to that point and the road they take is the story.

"A lot of these kids are coming from war-torn situations. They may have lost one or both parents in the violence. All of them have lost family members to the violence. Basketball becomes a light, a light in a long dark tunnel. It allows them to go forward through the rigors of academic challenges and all of the things they must overcome in order to get to this point.

"Of course, basketball is fun and it teaches them about team work and sacrifice in a way that allows them to have fun through achievement. That carries over to the academics and the other things they have to do. Through basketball, they are opening up doors for themselves and having fun doing it.

"These are also kids coming from very different places. They are coming into a western culture where things are different than they experienced at home. By playing on teams with kids from all different backgrounds, they learn about how society works and how to work with people that are different, from different places."

The foundation Coach Smith runs in Australia did not start over night. In fact, it was never his intention when he moved to Australia fourteen years ago. Like so many things that turn into a life's work, it happened by accident. It also remains a daily struggle to run the foundation, raise money and work with the kids.

"It is a struggle. We rely on government grants to keep the program going and that is not always easy. We keep pushing forward, finding ways to make it work. It helps that college coaches and high school coaches have embraced what we're doing. They see that these kids can succeed and add to the local schools something different from their experience, as well as succeed academically.

"It was something I started and it sort of developed into this. I started out with just a training academy in Australia. The purpose was to train local kids in basketball and then we would come to the US and do a tour playing high school teams.

"What I noticed is many of the kids could not afford to play. Therefore, they were not playing and then they were getting into trouble. The fact is, many of these kids come from difficult circumstance and they are in a different country. With nothing to do it was inevitable they would have some problems.

"So, I started to work with the kids even though they did not have the money to play. I started with one kid and then word got out and I was having kids from all over coming into play. That's when I started looking to get funding and was able to get grants from the Australian government to keep the program running. Other private entities helped out with things like equipment, gym time and so forth.

"It really took on a life of its own. It started with one kid and went from there. Once word got out that coach would train anyone, they started showing up and it blossomed from there. It is a beautiful thing to see happen. "

The work by itself would be rewarding, but the circumstance of the kids adds to it. An idea that started out as just a way to make a living teaching basketball, turned into a life's work. It is the stories and backgrounds of the kids he trains that makes it a mission.

" Oh, it is nothing what I expected. It is an amazing thing. Let me tell you, you see and hear about things that you cannot imagine. One of our kids that is in college now was a slave. Literally, he was a slave. He was living in Egypt with a family and forced to work for food. At night he was sent back to the refugee camps to give his family what extra food he was able to acquire. For him to come from there to here and now going to college, well, there are now words for it. For Majok Majok to have a chance to go to Harvard after losing his family in a war, it is amazing."

In this age of instant media and instant fame, it would seem natural that the Coach would be out promoting his work to everyone in the media. The work, however, has taken up too much time. Now after many years of hard work it is starting pay off, in terms of success stories. That means the coach is more comfortable talking about his story.

"It is great for the kids to get recognition for what they have achieved. It is an example to the other kids who are coming to Australia from these refugee camps in Egypt, Kenya and other places. They get to see there is an alternative to hanging out on the street. They can do something with their lives, despite all that has happened to them."

Bill Plaidman can be reach at bplaidman@gmail.com

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