When Jennifer Azzi, a retired professional basketball player and Olympic medalist, tells you how to steal the ball, you listen.
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.
Sitting on the sidelines of a final match between an all-star lineup of boys from some 22 African countries, she pauses to admire a perfect slam-dunk by a kid from Cameroon.
Even for these boys, she sighs, "the percentage of them making it into the NBA, or for those girls making it in the WNBA [Women's National Basketball Association], is very slim. But just getting them to be active, gives them a lot of confidence – owning your own body and being healthy, it's critical."
Back on the women's courts – two outdoor tarmac courts at the American International School of Johannesburg – Azzi leads a clinic to teach some 80 teenage women how to do layups, how to pass, and how to assume the perfect defensive stance. Some of the girls are rusty, to be sure, but having Azzi around has a way of elevating their game.
After sharpening their ball-handling skills, under the gaze of coaches from the Boston Celtics and the San Antonio Spurs, the girls work on life-skills with a local sports-and-empowerment group called "Hoops for Hope."
Thabo Marotola, a "Hoops" counselor, interrupts a dribbling game where one team tries to take away the ball from the other. She asks the girls how they defend themselves on the court, and how they defend themselves and their bodies out on the streets.
"Your body is a temple," says Mr. Marotola. "Say no to what you don't want to do."
The girls form a huddle and shout their most assertive "no!"
Heading to a school cafeteria after the clinic, Olive Tshilomba – a 10th-grader from Marysville College in Johannesburg – says she loves basketball even more than she did before. "I never thought I'd learn so much about life from basketball," she says. "They are trying to link sports with the way we feel about ourselves, and make sure everyone has a part in life. We're worth something."
Gugu Khumalo, another 10th-grader from Marysville, says that in the old days, soccer was the only sport many South Africans played. Now, she says, basketball is getting more popular among her friends. She feels fortunate that her family and friends are supportive, and never ask her, "why would a girl by playing basketball?"
It wasn't that long ago that Jennifer Azzi faced that same question growing up in Oak Ridge, Tenn. In 1990, when she graduated from Stanford, there was no WNBA, no professional women basketball players. She and her generation had to imagine a future when women's basketball would be taken seriously, on the same level as men.
"If you can see it, you can achieve it," Azzi tells the girls at the end of the clinic. "You girls are going to be leaders. You are athletes. Embrace it."