Ethiopian Premier League’s (EPL) newest club Mekele City FC (M City) announced the inclusion of three new foreign players to its squad on Wednesday. The three players joining Mekele include two Ghanaians and one from Equatorial Guinea.
By Mary Mulugeta Asseratte
Standing at six feet with his short-bob dread hairstyle tied up and one of the biggest smiles, Daniel “Danny” Haileleul ex-student-turned head/assistant coach to Coach Carlos was standing by the entrance. He was greeting every child with a high five and a conversation. He was straight away recognizable as he has always been the young man who played basketball all his life in his neighborhood and many believed he was destined to the big league. To those who have watched him grow into the man he is today, one thing is for sure, you can always count on the ringing of the basketball hoops with one player below it, Daniel, writes Mary Mulugeta Asseratte.
At a young age Daniel Hailelul (known to everyone as “Danny”) watched his brother Dawit, whom he calls a major inspiration in his life, play basketball in the backyard of their compound. At age six he was fascinated by the game and found himself playing with his brother competing with other kids from around the compound and he soon realized that the shoot-the-ball-in-the-hoop game could be more than just a hobby.
Danny decided to try out for his schools, Greek Community School, elementary basketball team and by sixth grade his talents were undeniable. His coach noticed his fast pace movements and skills that were years above his age and drafted him for the junior team in which the players were from the eighth and ninth grade. The next summer Danny decided to join the famous Coach Carlos’s summer basketball camp. The star player of the camp, he was voted MVP (most valuable player) and Coach Carlos decided to give him a place on his professional team where the players from this team were in their 20s and 30s (Danny was just beginning ninth grade). Danny credits Coach Carlos for being one of the biggest impacts in his basketball career, of course second to his older brother Dawit.
In 10th grade, which Danny says was his “best and last year in Addis” after playing in both Addis Ababa’s U-21 and Coach Carlos’s professional team, Danny was chosen to represent Ethiopia in two major league games, one being in Nairobi, Kenya in which the sponsor was worldwide company Sprite and the other being in Johannesburg, South Africa sponsored by the league Danny hoped to join, the NBA. When describing his experience, he says, “It was the biggest and scariest thing I had ever done. Everyone was bigger, stronger, faster and older than me. If basketball was a culture then I’d definitely call it a culture shock.” However, he credits it as being the best experience of his life, as it made him hungry and determined to be like the players he played against. This would ultimately be the decision that would lead him to follow his siblings and move to America.
Attending a small mainly all white boarding school in Kentucky, Danny describes his time there as simple. He did well in his studies and excelled in basketball but this was due to “their being no competition which meant there was no improvement in terms of my skills.” This lead him to leave his boarding school after a year and move to Dallas, which was for him “a bigger city, bigger school and meant more black people which equaled more competition.”
His whole reasoning for moving states was so he “could play basketball and be drafted by colleges” but Danny was hit with the biggest devastation when after making the team and practicing for the first game, he was told he would not be allowed to play for the schools team due to “transfers only being allowed to play in the second year of their transfer.” This was an old ancient rule made up by the district school board to stop students from transferring schools purely for basketball, a rule that must have been made up by what could be referred to as ‘hardcore English football hooligans on the school board’.
Not one to take no for an answer, Danny appealed against this sit in the naughty-corner-time-out rule and was finally given a hearing three games before the end of the 30-game season. He was given a 5-4 vote on his appeal, which meant he was able to play for the last three games and most importantly he was able to play in the play-offs.
Sadly his team lost four points to a nationally ranked team (according to Google this means top 25 in the United States) who then went on to play and win the state championship game. The mockery of all this you may ask is one of the players on this team was also a transfer student; however, his coach never let it be known.
Playing only three games of the season “wounded his chances of being picked up by colleges” so Danny decided to attend a prep school in Florida, which “allowed him the chance to get looked at by different schools.” He describes this year as one of his “most successful years” as he was able to solely focus on basketball. The establishment however was new which meant “it was not very well organized.” Nevertheless, Danny was scouted (something that is lacking in Ethiopia which Danny would like to see changed) by a coach from the University of Maine. The basketball coach at the University made many trips to see Danny play and to also speak to him and as far as they were concerned this was a done deal, plot twist. The coach at the prep school he was attending was also the director and had a few issues with the owner of the training camp where the players would train, the issues got so big that he was slapped with a restraining order, meaning he was not allowed to step foot inside the training camp, leaving the players without a coach. After that day Danny never heard from his Director or from the Coach at the University of Maine.
With all his siblings now residing in Washington DC, Danny decided to move closer to home and ‘Red Shirt’ for a year. Danny explains that in basketball you are given five years to play from high school to college and out of those five years you are only able to take one year out of the season, football fans would call this a red card and basketball fans a red shirt.
Within the year of the ‘red shirt’ Danny was working and studying full time, with no time for basketball he found himself declining physically and emotionally. Once the new school year started he made sure to make the team. Basketball season does not start until November so Danny had a good two months to train and get himself mentally prepared for the new season, which also happens to be the shortest season running from November-December. After making a major comeback in his first month Danny was hit with what he calls “the last straw.” At the end of November he had found out that he had failed one class, which meant that he was unable to play the next semester, December- March, which yet again meant he was unable to play in the play offs. Frustrated at both himself and the game he devoted his whole life to Danny decided it was time to give up on the NBA dream and decided to leave the team, a decision no one agreed/agrees with.
Once School was over for the summer Danny decided to come back home to Addis Ababa, a place he has not stepped foot in for the past three years, for what he thought would be a chill-all-day kind of summer. This did noot sit very well with his father, Haileleul, who used the line “not under my roof” (a line every Ethiopian child has heard) and urged (forced) him to either find a job or an internship. Within a few days Danny found himself standing in the same camp he attended eight years ago as a 14-year-old player, however this time as a 22-year-old head coach, assisting his beloved Coach Carlos.
It is clear from the way the children at the camp approach him and converse with him that Danny is more than a head coach to them, h is an inspiration, he is the ‘kid that followed his dreams’ even if it meant that his dreams did not quite follow him. However, no hope has been given up on Danny, especially from the people that watched him play as a kid.
Whilst observing the way Danny coached and mentored the children The Reporter came across a man by the name of “Z”, which is short for a name that my strong English accent could come nowhere near to pronouncing. He has been playing football in the same camp Danny played basketball. When asked him about Danny, he spoke of him as if he had been put together piece by piece solely for the purpose of playing basketball; he said, “I used to be very amazed when Danny would play, he was so small and young playing with much older and bigger people, however, he would be doing things I had never seen be done in this country. Before him I never really knew basketball but from him I learnt what basketball could be. Even from what I saw the other day I was very surprised at the level of play he was at”. He added that he is mad because Danny is no longer playing competitively. ”If he did decide to keep up it would make me very happy, I have high hopes for him and have even kept up with his basketball from online videos and have seen a vast improvement. I have never seen someone score five three pointers in a row until I saw Danny,” he said.
The love and passion Danny has for basketball is blinding, so much so that he has vowed to make sure he does everything in his power to make sure for future generations, no child from Ethiopia goes through what he had gone through for the love of sport. When asked what he wants for the future, he says, “The end goal will be to open up an academy where any child can come and play basketball, somewhere with both an outdoor and indoor court so no rain can affect a game or a training session.” He would also like to see scouts coming to Ethiopia, as he believes the country oozes talent in all sports “not just running”.
Ed.’s Note: Mary Mulugeta Asseratte is on an internship at The Reporter.