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NBA teaches African girls the right moves on – and off – the court.

Basketball Without Borders program offers lessons on hoops and life

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2008

MOTIVATOR: Former US pro basketball star Jennifer Azzi gives a clinic in Johannesburg.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP

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Johannesburg, South Africa

When Jennifer Azzi, a retired professional basketball player and Olympic medalist, tells you how to steal the ball, you listen.

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And when she tells a group of South African teenage girls at a basketball clinic how to protect themselves – against sexual harassment, peer pressure, or drugs – they listen, too.

"Your bodies are a wonderful thing, so always take care of yourselves," she tells a group of 10th-grade athletes from various schools in the Johannesburg area. "Each of you were brought into this world to make the world better."

In South Africa – where conservative social practices such as polygamy exist side by side with laws of gender empowerment – such words of encouragement from a successful woman athlete can be a powerful thing. Ms. Azzi's tour of the African continent, sponsored by the National Basketball Association's (NBA) "Basketball Without Borders" program, is a first-ever effort to reach out to young women athletes in Africa, giving them hope, ball-handling skills, and crucial advice on how to make it in a man's world.

Azzi's trip to South Africa, and later this week to Tanzania, is a trial of sorts – an expansion of the NBA's normal outreach to talented young African males, both to foster interest in the sport and to find the next African generation of Manut Bols, Dikembe Mutombos, and Hakeem "the Dream" Olajuwons. This year, for the first time, the NBA is reaching out to young African women players as well, at a time when the women's game here is only just now finding its place.

"The unfortunate thing is that it's a long shot for these kids, just as much as it is for kids in the States, so I can't encourage them to go professional. But as women, these girls are going to be the leaders and they have to know how to look after themselves," says Azzi, a former point guard for Stanford University's national championship team, for the gold-medal winning 1996 US Olympic team in Atlanta, and for WNBA teams such as the Detroit Shock and the San Antonio Silver Stars.