JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Chris Paul keeps waking up in his hotel at 3 a.m. because of jet-lag and is wiped, though it hasn’t stopped him getting out and visiting the house where Nelson Mandela lived.
Luol Deng couldn’t wait to talk to Pau Gasol about a trip he recommended the Spaniard take to one of South Africa’s most beautiful cities.
Gregg Popovich is planning a safari and a tour of the country’s wine region. As he said, “If you come all this way, you may as well do something.”
Oh yeah, there’s also a game to play on Saturday.
The NBA is in Africa, and a practice session at a downtown Johannesburg arena on Friday, the day before the NBA’s first exhibition game on this continent, was dominated not by basketball but by talk of who is going where and doing what off the court.
“How beautiful is Cape Town?” Deng asked a smiling Gasol of his trip to the city on the coast, breaking away from an interview with reporters offering boring questions like: Who’s going to win the game?
Saturday’s exhibition, where Paul will captain Team World against Deng’s Team Africa, is the NBA’s biggest statement of intent so far in Africa, and a precursor to a preseason and maybe even a regular season game over here, according to Commissioner Adam Silver, who is also on the trip.
But the exhibition, which also features, among others, Gasol brothers Pau and Marc, Washington’s Bradley Beal, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, and coaches Popovich, Mike Budenholzer and Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins, is secondary right now to the African experience for many of the NBA’s biggest names.
Paul, an eight-time All Star who played college ball for Wake Forest in his home town of Winston-Salem, began his prep on the long flight from Los Angeles by reading “Long Walk to Freedom,” the memoir of Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and South Africa’s first democratic president who died in 2013.
“The coolest part of the trip so far was having the opportunity to go to Soweto yesterday and have the opportunity to visit Nelson Mandela’s house,” said Paul, who is visiting South Africa for the first time. “When you come on a trip like this, a lot of times everyone talks about the game, the game, the game. But, in actuality, the game has been secondary.”
The next thing on the to-do list for Paul is a lion park on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Two-time NBA champion Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls took time out to go to Cape Town on the south west tip of Africa on the advice of Miami’s Deng, who has been traveling to South Africa every summer for the last seven or eight years. It was a good tip, judging by Gasol’s grin when they met up on court.
Before heading off for his safari, Popovich, the five-time NBA title-winning coach, will handle the “home” team. Team Africa is made up of African-born players like Deng and those with African heritage like Portland’s Al-Farouq Aminu and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who both have parents from Nigeria.
Popovich isn’t taking it too seriously.
“We’re going to have a great night, a lot of fun,” he said. “This isn’t regular season. We’re going to put on a great show for everybody. We’re not drawing up plays, we’re not going to stay up late tonight wondering if we’re going to win or lose.”
But it’s still a game, and NBA players being NBA players, it’ll be competitive on Saturday, exhibition or not.
“Once the juices get going and tip-off starts, you want to win,” Marc Gasol of Team World said. “That’s our nature. All of us can tell you the same thing, we’re gonna be careful, we’re not gonna get hurt. This and that. At the end of the day, if you have a chance, you want to win.
“Of course if the game gets too out of hand, you’re not going to try anything crazy. But if the game is close …”
The NBA’s introduction to Africa will be at the 4,000-seat Ellis Park Arena, which is perched at one corner of a much bigger and much more famous rugby stadium, one of the main sports in South Africa. The arena seats are, fittingly for the NBA, red, white and blue, and while it’s much smaller than the 20 NBA stars are used to, it’s a start.
“As long as the baskets are 10 feet, the court is the same length, same width,” Paul said. “I’m, what, 30 years old now. I feel like I’ve played everywhere you can possibly play.”
Even Africa come Saturday.