SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine what a thrill it’d be for any boy who aspires to be a basketball player and, through the community-minded efforts of Utah’s favorite franchise, gets an opportunity to actually take the floor with some NBA big men.
Well, on Thursday, a bunch of young hoop hopefuls got to find out.
That thrilling opportunity took place at the Zions Bank Basketball Center, where members of the Utah Jazz put on a fun-filled clinic for more than 40 local refugee youths affiliated with the Utah Refugee Services Office and Because He Loved Us First ministry. The youths ranged in age from 8 to 18 and originally hail from countries like Somalia, Bhutan, Burma and other African nations.
The one thing they all had in common?
Smiles on their faces.
“Yeah, it was fun; it’s always fun to play basketball,” said Ismael, 15, who has been a Utah resident for 10 years and, appropriately, wore a Gordon Hayward jersey for Thursday’s clinic.
“I like him,” he said of the Jazz's forward, “because I like how he shoots 3s and stuff, but he’s not my favorite player (that honor goes to the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony). ... I like shooting, but I learned a lot of other things about basketball and all that stuff today.”
On hand to help teach these boys and young men some fundamental skills and pointers of the game were two of Utah’s king-sized kids, third-year center Enes Kanter and rookie center Rudy Gobert. They were joined by Jazz assistant coaches (and former University of Utah stars) Johnnie Bryant and Alex Jensen; the franchise’s executive director of basketball operations, Richard Smith; and former Jazz star Thurl Bailey, who’s now a member of the Jazz broadcast team and also serves as the state of Utah refugee ambassador.
And the kids weren’t the only ones who were smiling.
“We get to show them and challenge them and just have fun, too,” said the 7-foot-1 Gobert, who towered over some of the youngsters by 3 or 4 feet but didn’t hesitate a bit when it came time to block their shots during a two-on-one drill.
“No, no, not at all,” he said of having absolutely no guilt whatsoever about swatting away shot after shot from the little guys. “I was just, you know, make them have fun and I usually try to step their game up. I’m a big kid, so I’m having fun, too.
“When I was a kid, I would have loved to come and do this stuff with NBA players, so I think it’s so much fun for them and for me, too,” said Gobert, a 21-year-old rookie from France who was selected by Utah in the first round of the NBA draft in June. “I would have loved to do this when I was young.”
Gobert and Kanter were chosen to work with the youths at Thursday’s clinic because they are both international players who, having come to the United States to play basketball as young men, can relate very well to some of the issues and challenges these youngsters are dealing with.
“I know how they feel,” Kanter, the 6-foot-11 center from Turkey, said. “Me and Rudy are from different countries, too, so I pretty much know how they feel because when I was young when I came here, I had pretty tough time because of language and culture and whatever. And now I’m just trying to help out those kids.
“I start basketball at their age. ... I think I was 12. So it’s really a good opportunity for them to play with NBA players. I put myself in their shoes and I would be, like, so excited because that’s how I’m trying to treat them. They got one tall one. He almost beat me in (a game of) ‘knockout,’ so he was pretty good. They got some talent out there; they got a couple really good shooters.
“It’s not about me,” said Kanter, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. “It’s about the whole Utah Jazz and we just try to make them Jazz fans, because if they love us they gonna love the Jazz, so that’s what I’m really looking forward to.”
They’ll have to work a little harder, however, to win over Boo Reh, a 12-year-old from Thailand who has lived in Utah the last four years.
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “I learned that, you know, we have to dribble two balls, and that was hard. ... But my favorite team is BYU.”
It was a similar story for Abdi, age 9, a fourth-grader who has been in Utah for seven years — or “ever since I was a baby,” he said.
“I don’t actually watch the Jazz very much,” he admitted. “I like (Golden State’s) Andre Iguodala.”
And then there was Omari, 15, a sophomore at Cottonwood High School who has lived in Utah for the past 10 years.
“I like the Jazz, but I like the Miami Heat better because my favorite player has always been LeBron (James),” he said.
“I play every day and I’m getting ready to try out for my high school team,” said Omari, who has a smooth shooting stroke and can play either point guard or shooting guard. “I made it last year at West High as a ninth-grader, so I have a pretty good feeling I’m gonna make it.”
And hey, who knows? He just might be a future Jazzman in the making.