Honing Young Players’ Hoop Dreams in Senegal
When senior kinesiology major Isaiah West traveled to Senegal during George Mason University’s winter break, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
As a strength and conditioning intern at the NBA Academy Africa, he knew he would see some great basketball. What West found most fulfilling, though, was how he matured as a mentor and a leader.
“These kids are between the ages of 14 and 19, and most are living out of their countries for the first time,” he says. “It means a lot to them to have somebody who has a different perspective but can still relate to them.”
West earned his opportunity, having worked as a volunteer in George Mason’s athletic strength and conditioning program for four years, absorbing knowledge and becoming part of the Mason network.
So when former Mason assistant men’s basketball coach Roland Houston, the NBA Academy Africa’s technical director, asked Mason strength and conditioning coordinator Robert “Handy” Handerahan for a recommendation to fill the internship, Handerahan immediately suggested West.
“He’s a special kid,” Handerahan says. “There became a point that our area here doesn’t run without Isaiah because we utilize him so much. He’s an outstanding young man, an outstanding leader. He’s getting the most out of the Mason experience, no doubt.”
Still, West, who will pursue a career as a strength and conditioning coach, was thrown into a completely alien environment.
NBA Academy Africa, in Thies, Senegal, is one of seven NBA academies worldwide that deliver year-round elite basketball training and an educational environment to top male and female prospects outside the United States
“It becomes more than just the intricacies of strength and conditioning to ‘How do I have an impact?’ To have a role in helping these kids reach their dream is something I’ll never forget.”
Of the 13 prospects at NBA Academy Africa, only three spoke English, West says, and only one of the three used it as his primary language. The others, from countries such as Benin, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic spoke either French (a holdover from their countries’ colonial pasts) or the Senegalese language of Wolof.
While the English speakers conveyed West’s instructions, his personality and professionalism won the players’ confidence. West did more than just plan and lead training sessions. He set up the weight room, tracked player injuries, and monitored study halls and tutoring sessions.
“I was impressed with him,” Houston says. “He had unbelievable training with Handy, and he was able to utilize that experience and upgrade us in certain areas. I was able to see how he adjusted and adapted to get his point across, so I think he did a terrific job.”
“It was a melting pot of nuances I was never exposed to before, so what I learned is you have to find solace being out of your comfort zone,” West says.