Wes Unseld Jr. is a big history buff, specifically ancient history, and sometimes to the chagrin of his wife. That’s because when they go on vacation, he often plans tours of landmarks and museums when she would rather do other things.
His love for history is among the many reasons why Unseld Jr., head coach of the Wizards, decided to participate in the 2022 Basketball Without Borders camp in Cairo, Egypt. Unseld Jr. is currently there along with other NBA coaches, NBA players and Naismith Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo to help continue the game’s global expansion.
Unseld Jr. in many ways is serving as an ambassador for the sport.
“That sounds heavy when you say it like that. Honestly, for us it’s an opportunity to give back. It’s unique in this fashion because you’re doing it in another country,” Unseld Jr. told NBC Sports Washington in a conversation from Cairo. “Oftentimes, you’re dealing with young people who don’t speak the same language. The commonality is the language of basketball, the language of sport.”
Unseld Jr. is coaching boys and girls from all over the continent through drills, scrimmages and games. Other coaches there include Steve Kerr of the Warriors and Chauncey Billups of the Blazers. NBA players helping out include Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams of the Celtics, Mo Bamba of the Magic and Udoka Azubuike of the Jazz. Raptors president Masai Ujiri is among the camp’s directors.
The kids participating are all 18 years or younger. Collectively, they have traveled from 26 different African countries.
The campers are split into stations each morning at the Hassan Mostafa Indoor Sports Complex. They are coached on a variety of skills including ball-handling, defense, offensive spacing and shooting. There are also life skill guidance, which Unseld Jr. believes is especially valuable.
“The kids are so excited. Just to see their reaction to the opportunity, not just to be in a facility to play and to learn, but also the opportunity just to kind of rub shoulders not necessarily with me, but NBA players and personalities that they watch on TV. To see Steve Kerr, to be up in close and have him instruct you in a session or even coach you in a game [is great],” Unseld Jr. said.
The Basketball Without Borders camp, now in its 18th year operating in Africa, began on Saturday and runs through Wednesday. On the first day they took a trip to see the pyramids.
That was a treat for Unseld Jr.
“It was unreal. It’s kind of one of those bucket list items, that you’ve seen it a thousand times and have read about. I fancy myself a history nerd a little bit, so I was really excited for the opportunity to see it firsthand,” he said.
“Just the scale is incomprehensible. You think of just sheer raw manpower putting that together, the precision, the amount of labor and how intensive it had to be. The amazing part about it is they still don’t know how they did it. But to see it in its full grandeur, up close and personal, was really amazing.”
Unseld Jr. has followed in his father’s footsteps in coaching the Wizards and the same applies to this trip. Back in the mid-90s, Wes Unseld Sr. was part of an NBA contingent that visited South Africa, where he had dinner with Nelson Mandela. Mutombo was also on that trip.
Roughly 30 years later, Unseld Jr. was extended an invitation by Kim Bohuny, the NBA’s senior vice president of international basketball operations. Bohuny knew his father well and now Unseld Jr. is walking the same path.
He believes Africa has a chance to someday produce NBA talent as Europe does currently, with each of the last four MVP awards having gone to European players.
“We all know how that brings people together from around the world, regardless of demographic, race, religion, creed, what have you. The sport unites and to see that happen live, it’s a beautiful thing,” Unseld Jr. said.