Eritrea Basketball Showcase hopes to improve the country’s image

(l-r) Abe Woldeslassie, Alexander Loul Syum
Photo by Charles Hallman

Macalester College in St. Paul this weekend will host the first-ever Eritrea Basketball Showcase August 5-7.

Alexander Loul Syum, recently hired as head men’s basketball coach at Mt. Hood (Oregon) Community College, will lead a group of coaches, including Macalester HC Abe Woldeslassie.

“Those kids have grown into very high prestigious collegiate basketball players,” Loul Syum told the MSR. His ultimate goal for the three-day Showcase is “to bring them together, showcase the talent, and organize an idea of bringing these guys into the concept of a 3-on-3 FIBA participation or an Olympic team participation…playing for the Eritrean national team.”

Eritrea currently ranks next to last (163 of 164 countries) in the FIBA rankings—the United States is No. 1. “We are trying to elevate the national team,” stated Woldeslassie.

Under British rule until 1950, the country of Eritrea, located in Eastern Africa, bordered by Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti and its coastline along the Red Sea, became an independent nation in 1993 after decades of being annexed to Sudan and Ethiopia. However, the small country has a sullen reputation—it has one of the world’s worst human rights records and the overall worst press freedom in the world, according to Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, respectively.

“It’s only been around for 31 years,” explained Loul Syum of Eritrea. He, Woldeslassie and others are working to improve the country’s overall image, perhaps using sports as the starting point, especially basketball.

“Basketball has always been a very gravitating opportunity for kids to come together and bring communities together,” continued Loul Syum, a volunteer Eritrean ambassador. “We’re going to bring in close to 26-30 basketball players that either play basketball collegiately or to play professionally in Europe.” 

Because their parents are African-born, they can qualify for playing for the Eritrean team as well, if selected. Both Loul Syum’s and Woldeslassie’s parents are from Africa. 

The first-year Mt. Hood coach met the fifth-year Macalester coach earlier this summer during their respective recruiting trips out west. They began talking. “We started this three months ago slowly calling people, slowly bringing this together,” recalled the former.

“Alex has done a lot,” added Woldeslassie, a Minneapolis native. “I’m helping him with the gym facilities and things like that.”

The Scots coach helped lead the school to one of its best seasons ever this past season, capping it with an MIAC runners-up title, and was named Region 9 Coach of the Year. On the upcoming season, Woldeslassie stressed, “We have 11 guys returning, three starters and three key guys off the bench. Maybe we’ll be ranked [in the] top three in the league. I think we’ll be right there.”

Loul Syum played his college ball at Bethany (Kansas) College (2012-15) and got his masters in sports psychology from the University of Western States in Portland, Oregon earlier this year. He was named to his current job this summer after coaching a club team in Southeast Asia and being an assistant college coach here in the States.  

“I can have my own program now, and I can build my own culture,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m really excited.”

Loul Syum would like to help set a similar Entrean showcase for women hoopsters, but for now he’s doing it for the men.  

“This is a real deal,” he concluded.