I can’t imagine Luke Walton will take a trip of greater significance than the one he’s on right now. Free-agent guard Jim Jackson, who was with the Lakers at the end of last season, is in South Africa as well. Vladimir Radmanovic was supposed to come but Walton said he couldn’t make it.
By Ross Siler
Of all the roles he has played since coming to the Lakers, Luke Walton never could have expected one day he would serve as a basketball ambassador to Africa.
Three days into his stay in South Africa, though, Walton has seen more than he could have imagined. The 26-year-old forward is taking part in the NBAs Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg, led by Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo.
In the mornings and afternoons, Walton has worked at an instructional camp for more than 100 of Africas most promising young players. He also has paid visits to two orphanages that brought home the realities of the continents HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The thing about it is we get off the bus and there are a thousand kids running, jumping and giving us hugs, Walton said by phone Friday. Its pretty amazing to see how happy and how much they love life when as an outsider looking on you feel so bad for how much they went through.
Walton said he was struck by how raw the African players were, even though they all have what he described as NBA bodies. The players had no trouble dunking as part of a drop-step drill, he cited as one example, but struggled when it came to converting layups.
But Walton could see marked improvement after only a couple of days and was encouraged by what he saw once the occasionally chaotic games started.
You can tell that they love playing,? he said, because when we start playing games, theyre yelling and diving for loose balls.?
Two numbers also have stuck in Waltons mind on the trip. The first was the 5.5 million South Africans estimated to be infected with HIV, the other was the 1.1 million children believed to be AIDS orphans in the country.
The players visited a youth center Thursday where most of the students come from families in extreme poverty and the majority are orphans as a result of political violence, crime and AIDS. The next day, the players toured an AIDS hospice for young children.
Its been pretty shocking to see that that type of stuff is really going on, Walton said. The orphanages were both in very poor parts of the city but the people who were in charge were doing an unbelievable job.?
The camp runs through Sunday, after which Walton will take part in a three-day safari. He has spent most of the off-season at his home in San Diego, working out with the likes of Kareem Rush, Brian Cook and Danny Granger. Training camp is less than a month away.
But the trip to Africa has been an unforgettable experience. As tough as the realities of life on the continent can be, Walton paid his hosts the ultimate compliment Friday.
The people out here, he said, are the nicest people you could ever meet.?