Abe Woldeslassie’s Macalester Scots men’s basketball team has a philosophy: Leave something better than you found it.
Now, Woldeslassie and a group of coaches, led by Alexander Loul Syum, are hoping to do the same for Eritrean men’s basketball.
They held what was believed to be the first Eritean basketball showcase over the weekend at Macalester’s facility in St. Paul. The showcase featured more than 20 players, largely in the teenage range, from the U.S., Canada and even a couple from overseas, all of Eritrean descent.
It was the next step in a vision Loul Syum, the men’s basketball coach at Mt. Hood Community College in Oregon, developed a few years ago. While visiting his mother in Eritrea, he spent three weeks helping out the basketball program. That included a two-day camp that drew 75 kids who showed up to play on two hoops.
“I don’t know how I coordinated it, but I did. And that gravitated toward putting something special together,” Loul Syum said.
He’s witnessed the success other African nations have had in putting together national teams, such as South Sudan, and has a similar vision for Eritrea.
Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa region of Eastern Africa which gained its independence in 1991, currently ranks 163rd out of 164 nations in the FIBA basketball world rankings. The weekend showcase wasn’t held by the federation, but Woldeslassie said organizers are trying to show the federation that they’re behind it, that they want to help and that, together, they can elevate the program.
To move up the ranks, Eritrea will have to qualify for and play in more tournaments. That takes money and support, which organizers are planning to build over time. The Eritrean flag was hanging inside the basketball facility Saturday morning, with coaches in shirts and players in jerseys. It all felt organized. That was a primary goal in Year 1 of the event.
“Maybe in Year 2, Year 3, Year 4, people say, ‘Wow, this is a real thing.’ I think Year 1 there is always a little doubt, because this hasn’t happened before,” said Woldeslassie, the Macalester men’s basketball coach since 2018. “So our hope is that this is a yearly thing.”
Loul Syum looks forward to having players compete in FIBA competitions such as 3 on 3 tournaments. There is a long way to go until something like the Olympics will be seriously discussed.
“This might be a 10- to 15- to 20-year project, and this is like Year 1,” Woldeslassie said. “There might be kids that aren’t even born today that might play on the national team 20 to 25 years from now. This is the ground layer, the base, and we’re just pumped to have it here.”
Woldeslassie connected with Loul Syum a few months ago, and the two started a back and forth. With St. Paul’s central location in the country, Macalester seemed like a natural fit to host the first showcase from a travel perspective.
Woldeslassie’s parents, who are now deceased, were born in Eritrea. His involvement with the basketball program is, in some way, a chance to honor them.
“I get to coach college basketball for a living. It’s like a made-up, make-believe job. I have these opportunities because my parents sacrificed for me, and their parents,” said Woldeslassie, a Minneapolis native who played basketball at St. Thomas Academy, the University of St. Thomas and Macalester.
He wants to help the kids in this program to understand that, as well, on their paths to realizing their dreams. Yes, the long-term goal is to help build up the Eritrean basketball program — including, eventually, with the women — but for now, the college coaches are aiming to help kids connect with their roots while building a tree of resources to help them attain their goals.
Loul Syum noted his mom ingrained the idea of Eritrea in him. But it won’t be as present in second-, third- or fourth-generation Eritreans.
“They need to have an idea of what they can represent in their own way. Their parents are probably born here, they don’t travel back as much, family isn’t back there as much, now it’s just the idea of them being Eritrean, but not with the roots,” he said. “They can have these roots to come back home and do great things with basketball. Why not, right?”
“It’s not about playing in the NBA or playing in the Olympics now,” Woldeslassie said. “It’s about, ‘Can we help a kid get to college? Can we help him improve himself and get better grades so he can get a better job?’ It’s bigger than just ‘Well, we’re trying to score points and win a game.’ ”