I promise my piece is about something serious. Please, though, indulge me for a brief couple of sentences to share some joyous news. Here it is: The Knicks are good! 6-2 in their past eight games good! Led by their majestic unicorn savior, Kristaps Porzingis, New York’s favorite basketball team is in a tie for fifth-place in the Eastern Conference. Is it early? Yes. Could so much more still go wrong? Absolutely. Am I loving it all regardless? Damn straight. If you had told me before the season started that the Knicks, at any point after embarking from the beautiful lack of L’s that is 0-0, would be fifth in the East, I might’ve cried. I’ll take it!
Someone who just recently has gotten the love is rookie point guard from France, Frank Ntilikina. The 19-year-old Frankie Smokes is hounding opposing ball handlers on defense, slinging slick pick-and-roll passes and hitting timely shots, like his two cluuutch threes against the Pacers. The Frenchman has been balling out, repping his new city and his old country. Only, Ntilikina isn’t French. Not really.
Ntilikina’s parents are Rwandan. They fled the country during the Rwandan Civil War, moving to Belgium, where Ntilikina was born. A few years later, the family immigrated to France, where Ntlikina stayed and played basketball until he joined the Knicks. Despite what your TV or computer screen tells you, Ntilikina is Rwandan. I think it is important that we recognize the truth, because this confusion is far from a superficial issue. When we evade Ntilikina’s real history, we exacerbate our ignorance of Rwandans basketball players, specifically, and non-Westerners, in general.
Ntilikina’s French club, SIG Strasbourg, deserves credit for his development. Ntilikina had been affiliated with the team since he was 5 years old. It was under that guidance that he developed into the savvy player he is today. By no means do I want to criticize France. On the contrary, I am thankful to France for having the economic security to attract the Ntilikina family and for building the basketball infrastructure to develop Ntilikina into an NBA-worthy player. Had Ntilikina’s parents decided to stay in Rwanda, we wouldn’t be talking about him today.
The reason we need to acknowledge Ntilikina’s country of origin (if not in birth then in spirit) is that Rwanda needs this respect which we are denying. Given that most people probably only know it for its 1994 genocide or silverback gorillas, Rwanda could use the credibility that says its people are valuable and worthy of respect. I scrolled through the Wikipedia page of famous Rwandans and didn’t recognize a single name. Not one! Sure, that tells you my history isn’t the best. It also should tell you, me and everyone else that we aren’t paying enough attention to this country, one with a population of nearly 12 million people.
This situation isn’t uncommon in the NBA. Thabo Sefalosha is usually listed as being Swiss, even though he spent many of his formative years in South Africa. Luol Deng and Serge Ibaka play for England and Spain, respectively, in international competition, even though Deng is Sudanese and Ibaka is Congolese. You could form a potent team (I’d venture to say a playoff team in the East) with only African-born players. When we associate players with the countries in which they gained fame, we continue a positive feedback loop that leaves basketball-underdeveloped countries ignored. In turn, general sentiment that these countries can’t or don’t produce good players is reinforced. With that sentiment in mind, it’s hard to invest in developing young basketball players in these countries. Yeah, the NBA does its Basketball Without Borders camp each year, but that only reaches a tiny population of players, and it doesn’t guarantee anything. Because the NBA doesn’t focus on where some of its players come from, it is missing out on a huge and underserved basketball community. Our society does the same beyond basketball.
If you’re feeling like this thought process is a bit of a stretch, you’re right. To be honest, it might not matter that much to Rwandans that we Americans think of Frankie as French. The crucial aspect here is that this mislabeling is a microcosm of something we do in Western society. We assign special value to the people with whom we identify, so we look out extra hard for those people and, when we find people who seem a little different, we attempt to figure out how they can fit the mold. The way I see it, if we’re so easily missing Ntilikina, who else are we missing? How many other exemplary individuals are making an impact in our society and we don’t even know where they come from? If we don’t make the effort to recognize the countries behind these people, we will never know that these countries, especially nations in the “developing world” or “Global South” deserve our attention. We must open our eyes to these role models to shatter our stereotypes.
I hope some media members take it upon themselves to highlight Ntilikina’s Rwandan heritage. Even though the dude’s got a skyscraping billboard standing over the city, it is his homeland that’s being overlooked.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu