DeMarcus Cousins didn’t even hesitate.
When the NBA asked the New Orleans Pelicans’ All-Star center if he wanted to participate in this week’s Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa, he jumped at the chance.
“This was a place that was on my bucket list,” Cousins said on a conference call from Johannesburg. “So, when the opportunity was presented to me, it was a no-brainer. It’s a place I always wanted to visit. It’s the motherland. I believe it’s where everything started, so I had to go see it for myself.”
He’s serving as one of the NBA’s representatives, working as a counselor in the Basketball Without Borders camp, which includes the 80 best boys and girls prospects from 26 African countries. Cousins was recorded on NBA cameras coaching his team’s young guards, providing insight on when and how to take over a game when it comes to the final minutes.
“This is where you determine what kind of guard you want to be,” Cousins said on the bench, in a video posted to social media. “You can pick and choose and your spots, but when it’s time to do your thing, you’ve got to do it. It’s time to go win the game.”
Cousins said the trip has been a valuable experience, and it’s not over yet. He will suit up for the NBA Africa game on Saturday afternoon as a member of Team World, taking on Team Africa in an exhibition.
The Pelicans are also represented by coach Alvin Gentry, who worked alongside Cousins to evaluate talent and choose a team for the prospect camp.
“I’ve seen the way he interacts with the young players they have here and how he’s handled those situations and it’s really impressed me,” Gentry said. “I think he’s a tremendous asset to our franchise.”
The entire Basketball Without Borders trip is an eye-opening experience for Gentry, who first came to South Africa in the 1990s, before Nelson Mandela’s election, and Gentry has seen an entirely different side of the nation ever since.
Cousins and Gentry took part in a Habitat for Humanity home building event and each said the community aspect of ingratiating into Africa was a critical part of the trip.
“We wanted this to be a well-rounded experience and not just an athletic occasion,” Gentry said. “I think it was important to see that side of things and get out and meet the people here.”
But it does serve as more than charitable mission.
Africa is an obvious place for the NBA to find new, untapped talent. The Pelicans have taken advantage recently, selecting Mali native Cheick Diallo in the second round of the 2016 NBA draft, and Gentry said he’s just a small piece of the basketball momentum picking up on the continent.
“We see the progress the players are making here,” Gentry said. “I really do feel like this is going to be the place the next big wave of players are going to come from. I feel really honored to be here.”
Gentry said the next critical step in the African basketball movement is to have academies that start when kids are younger, so the fundamentals are built earlier and the prospects aren’t as raw when they come to college or into professional leagues.
But weeks like this, and appearances by stars like Cousins, are what build the foundation for it to carry forward.
“I was talking to (76ers star and Cameroon native) Joel Embiid and one thing he actually showed me was a picture of when he was in this camp, and obviously he’s made unbelievable progress,” Gentry said. “But, that was the one thing he said to me was he wishes he had an opportunity to start when he was eight years old instead of 15 or 16 years old. He thinks some of the things he’s learning now are things he would’ve just taken for granted, and that he could be a much better player today.”