Matt McCollister just wanted to do a little something, perhaps conduct a basketball clinic or two. What he got was beyond anything he could have imagined.
A 2015 trip to Kenya with a grateful client who was a Kenyan citizen made such an impression on McCollister — a Twin Cities attorney by trade and basketball coach by passion — that he made an offer.
“I asked if I could put on a basketball clinic there,” McCollister recalled. “I was so impressed with the country, I just wanted to do something for them.”
The Kenyan government gave a tepid response, but his client, a doctor who was also a government official, indicated that he had connections within other governments. Feelers were extended and an excited response came back:
Would McCollister be willing to put on clinics in Tanzania, a nation about the size of Texas due south of Kenya on the Indian Ocean.
He jumped at the chance, conducting seven days of clinics in Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania. The clinics were so successful and interest so high that another offer came: Would he take it a step further and accept a job with the Tanzanian Basketball Federation?
“They said ‘We love the work you’re doing right now. We want you to come in and run our basketball programs,’ ” McCollister said.
His immediate answer? “I’ll have to talk to my wife.”
She gave her blessing and a contract was agreed upon for two trips per year, expenses paid, to the nation of roughly 52 million people.
And suddenly Matt McCollister, New Prague native and Brooklyn Center High School boys’ coach, added the title of head coach of the Tanzanian national basketball team to his résumé.
Starting from scratch
At first, McCollister had his doubts.
“It was daunting,” he said. “I thought ‘I can’t do this.’ National team? That’s Mike Krzyzewski stuff.”
The more he learned, however, the more he realized this job was as far from the top national programs as Dar es Salaam is from the Twin Cities (about 8,500 miles). He was basically starting a program from the ground up.
“They didn’t even have jerseys,” he recalled. “There’s only one indoor, regulation court in the whole country. And that has a cement floor and a roof that leaks.”
The facilities might have been lacking — they still are — but the desire to improve was unmistakable. That attitude convinced McCollister that he could handle the job.
“They said ‘Show us what to do,’ ” he said. “Then it became more palatable.’’ He realized, “I can do this.”
Still, there was work to be done. The first collection of players put together by the Tanzanian National Basketball Federation, McCollister said, “looked like a beer league softball team.”
“Twenty-eight-year-olds with beer bellies, 6-foot-4 post players,” he chuckled. “I said ‘We’re not going to beat anybody with this. We’ve got to get younger.’ ”
Doing much of his work by e-mail from his Mendota Heights home, McCollister dug in. He reached out to his local basketball contacts for help.
“At first, they asked a lot of questions. ‘What is this? How did this come about?’ Then it was ‘How can we help?’ ” he said. “And then, ‘Can we go, too?’ I’ve got no shortage of people who want to go with, which is awesome. It’s been a really great response.”
The joy of learning
What drew McCollister to Tanzania, and what keeps him motivated to conduct team business into the wee hours of the day — long after his local commitments to family, job and Brooklyn Center boys’ team are over — is the overwhelmingly warm response he’s received from the Tanzanian people.
“These people haven’t been pampered. They are so grateful to be learning something. I tell all the coaches that I take over there that we can teach in a week what would take a month to teach here because the buy-in is like that,” McCollister said with a snap of his fingers.
A year after taking the position, McCollister coached the Tanzanian national team in a tournament for the first time in the fall of 2016 in the FIBA Zone 5 Qualifier, held in Dar es Salaam.
“We didn’t do particularly well,” he said. “We did beat South Sudan, which was big. Just having the tournament in Tanzania was huge for us.”
Gradually, things have been improving. Through grants and aid from NBA Africa, some new outdoor courts have been built. The number of basketball clinics has increased, mostly in Dar es Salaam but more than a few in surrounding towns and communities, designed to entice a younger generation of players.
“Out there, they see us as more of a novelty,” McCollister said.
His biyearly appearances are typically covered by the local media. He’s become well-known in much of the country he’s come to love.
“We were driving around a town call Dodoma, and we got pulled over,” he recalled “I asked what was going on. They told me that the police officer in the car saw me and wanted to pull me over to meet me.”
Sam Esboldt is a former assistant coach at Brooklyn Center who is now an assistant men’s basketball coach at Des Moines Area Community College. He accompanied McCollister to Tanzania in 2016 and witnessed firsthand the work McCollister has done.
“The basketball he’s teaching is very basic, just dribbling and passing, but there’s a pure joy to it that translates to the kids,” Esboldt said. “What stuck with me is the joy that can come from the game in its simplest form.”
Esboldt says much of that enjoyment comes from the differing Tanzanian perspective.
“The culture [in the United States] is driven by results and the end goal becomes the focus,” he said. “There’s no joy in the process and the journey. The kids over there love to learn, and they learn something new every day.”
McCollister doesn’t talk much to his Brooklyn Center players about his other coaching job and the barriers that exist.
“It’s almost too much for them to comprehend,” he said. “For example, we have a main gym and an auxiliary gym. Our kids don’t like shooting in the auxiliary gym because they don’t like the floor in it.”
He stopped, sighed heavily, and continued: “But they have no context, so it’s not really fair to them to compare their situations. Culturally, their situations are different because of how they were born. It’s kind of the ovarian lottery.”
When he does bring it up, it’s to remind them that basketball can open doors.
“I try to tell our kids that if you treat the game of basketball right, it can take you across the world,” said McCollister, who previously coached at Minneapolis Henry, Breck in Golden Valley and St. Croix Prep in Stillwater. “It’s such a beautiful game.”
While he’s made inroads in the development of basketball in Tanzania, McCollister, who heads back for two weeks in late October, feels he’s benefited just as much, if not more, from the journey.
“When you stress over some of the things we stress over here, I have to stop and take a breath,” he says. “OK, I have running water. I have air conditioning. I get to drive my vehicle around where I want. It puts things in perspective.”
He still has a hard time believing the opportunities his love for basketball has afforded.
“I was just going to put on a clinic. I never thought it would come to this,” he says with a smile and a slow headshake. “It’s such a cool opportunity. I’m just enjoying it all.”