Basketball Without Borders

Pistons scout Harold Ellis eager for 4th trip to Africa as part of NBA program

Harold Ellis
Harold Ellis will represent the Pistons while traveling with Basketball Without Borders.
Allen Einstein(NBAE/Getty Images)
Discovering the next Hakeem Olajuwon or Dikembe Mutombo isn’t the motivation for Harold Ellis to join the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders trek to South Africa, but if it somehow pays off in the Pistons landing Africa’s next great 7-footer down the road he wouldn’t mind.

Ellis, a Pistons scout, leaves for Johannesburg on Saturday for his fourth trip as part of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program in Africa. This year marks the 10th anniversary, Ellis said, and it will be his first visit as a representative of the Pistons.

Ellis was in management with the Atlanta Hawks for his first three African adventures. When he joined Michael Curry’s coaching staff for the 2008-09 season, he couldn’t continue accompanying the NBA group to Africa for two reasons. One, it conflicted with preparation for the start of Curry’s first training camp and, two, then-Pistons international scouting guru Tony Ronzone already was lined up to go as Pistons representative.

But Ronzone is now assistant general manager in Minnesota and Ellis has moved into the front office. He was eager to get back in to the regular rotation for Basketball Without Borders, which has been a rewarding and eye-opening experience for him.

“The first one I went to, it was great,” he said. “I thought, wow, this is something the NBA should have been doing 20 years ago. I got there and I had a different appreciation for David Stern and the NBA. They’ve done a great job of giving back.”

While the core activity of Basketball Without Borders’ time in Johannesburg will be a weeklong camp for approximately the top 100 prospects throughout Africa, the NBA personnel partner with Habitat for Humanity to build housing, dispense a number of personal-care items, conduct daily seminars on health awareness issues, educate coaches from throughout the continent and serve as ambassadors for the game.

“We take them through drills and put them on teams,” said Ellis, who coached his team to the championship on his last visit – costing him a trip he won through a lottery among the Basketball Without Borders volunteers to attend a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela. “My team will be the Pistons. I’ll have jerseys and practice gear that I will leave behind for them. We bring in two African coaches per team.”

It gets competitive, Ellis said, but the lasting impression is more the unbridled enthusiasm of the camp participants – their thirst for learning and their sweeping appreciation for the opportunity granted them.

“It’s not like coaching a guy here,” Ellis said. “You coach a kid there, he’s looking at you like, ‘Coach, what’s my next move? Coach, you want me to jump off a building?’ It’s unbelievable how they are – unbelievable.”

Ellis was struck at the sheer raw athletic ability and the size of the players, who are roughly of an age group that would translate to high school players in the United States.

“The first time I saw it I said, ‘Wow – I have never seen that many guys 7 feet tall in one gym.’ Now, you look at a guy 7 feet and then you realize he might have played basketball only for two months. Or he’s been doing basketball for fun, but he’s just now getting to try to make it his job. This guy might be the hunter for his village or a warrior or a young prince.

“The kids are so smart. They might speak five languages and they come from all over Africa. Africa is so large and we’re talking about getting it down to the top 100 or top 50.”

Ellis is eager to see how things have changed and the strides made since his last visit, four years ago, and hopes he can associate again with the two assistant coaches who helped him win the title in 2007.

“I’m really curious,” he said. “When I first got on board, I think they had been doing it for three years and they had worked out the kinks. It was an incredible trip then, and now the kids are much better than when I first came because we put in a program for them.

“My first year, some of the kids that were there for the first time, it was their first time running in shoes. You try to think, how can that be your first time – you’re 15 – running in shoes? Let alone having shoes that fit? If he’s 7 feet, they’re not walking around with (size) 17, 18 shoes in stores there, let alone trying to find a shoe store from wherever your village might be.

“The eating conditions – first time for many of them having full meals, three meals a day. And it doesn’t stop their energy. Some of the best kids – you just want to be around them. And the people, too. I’m eager to get back.”

When Ellis first became intrigued by the Basketball Without Borders program, he envisioned taking the trips to Europe and Asia as well as Africa. But once he saw Africa …

“You’re hooked,” he said. “I started off saying I want to try a lot of different ones. But once I got with Africa, I said, ‘You know what? This is my thing. I was hooked.”