After he starred in the feel-good Hollywood movieThe Air Up There,it seemed as if life would imitate art for the Kenyan hoops prospect. Instead, things took a darker, messier turn
IT'S SIX MILES from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to the Nairobi neighborhood of Buruburu, but the drive, in a city with only a couple of working stoplights for 3.9 million residents, can take several hours. This leaves plenty of time for my driver to ask why I've traveled halfway around the world for only a weekend. It's a good question.
I first tried to track down Charles Gitonga Maina, Kevin Bacon's costar in the 1994 film The Air Up There, two years ago when I was the coordinating producer of the short-lived Fox Sports 1 show Crowd Goes Wild. We'd had success bringing on former stars of much-beloved (if critically pilloried) sports films from the '90s, when the form was at the height of its popularity. The surprising success of A League of Their Own, The Mighty Ducks and Cool Runnings had made it easy for studios to green-light variations on the theme. Lost in that mix was this basketball film of questionable substance. Bacon played Jimmy Dolan, a college assistant coach who, in a stroke of drunken inspiration, heads to a distant African village to land his next big recruit: the 6'9" Saleh, played by Maina, who himself had been discovered in Nairobi by a foreign scout. Art imitated life, so to speak.
For all its faults, and there are many, The Air Up There exudes a certain charm. Maina, who was a 19-year-old novice actor when the film was shot, was almost unanimously praised for his portrayal of Saleh, a tribal prince. Critics called him "warmly appealing" and "hugely engaging."
Six months after The Air Up There was released, Nigeria-born Hakeem Olajuwon led the Houston Rockets to the first of two straight NBA titles. Like many who came of age in that era, I was enamored with the NBA's international turn, and Maina personified that fascination. I couldn't shake his story.
Maina seemed to have vanished. My intel on his whereabouts consisted of a single Facebook post. After years of my badgering friends with experience working in sub-Saharan Africa, my sister, through a contact, returned with a solitary clue: "The guy can be found at the Buruburu shopping center." I was told to check the bars first.
My plan was as simple as it was ill-conceived: Enter a bar in the shopping center, see if there were any 6'9" patrons, and if not, move on to the next one.
Buruburu is a middle-class enclave on the outskirts of Nairobi. Its bars and cafés are popular weekend destinations where one can waste the hours away in a sea of local lager and English Premier League matches. Maina was born and raised here, the third of four children of a telecommunications auditor and a nurse. He learned to play basketball at age 14. In 1991, when he was 17, he won the Nairobi slam dunk championship, and a year later he was chosen from among 46 other players at an open casting call for the part of Saleh. Director Paul Michael Glaser has said Maina won the role in part by boasting, during his taped audition, "I'm a dunkaholic."
The driver and I approach the patio of our first bar, the Winds Club. No, the waiter doesn't know any former actors or basketball players. Once our beers arrive, a middle-aged gentleman who has been watching us from a nearby stool calls over in Swahili, "Ninamjua yule mrefu?" ("I know him, the tall guy?") The man introduces himself as Benson Kivati, the local police chief, and sends a nearby teenager off in pursuit of the tall guy. It can't possibly be this easy.
Less than 10 minutes later, in this city bigger than Chicago, Charles Gitonga Maina ambles into the bar. I awkwardly shake his hand and try to explain why I've come. We're both overwhelmed. "Boy, do I have a story for you," he says, his speech slightly slurred.
We agree to meet the following morning. Before Maina departs, Benson pulls him aside and whispers something into his ear. Later I ask what he said. Benson replies, "I told him to arrive sober."
WHEN WE MEET the next morning, Maina is wearing a knitted beanie pulled low over his ears, no matter that the temperature is in the 80s. When he finally takes it off, a receding hairline and a frosting of gray better reveal his 42 years.
We start from the beginning. He tells me that when he traveled to Los Angeles for the final audition for the movie, it was the first time he'd left Kenya. Once he won the part, it was off to Hoedspruit, South Africa, where most of the filming took place.
Excluding Bacon, who needed a stunt double for some of his scenes, the production included a veritable who's who of hoops. The film's technical adviser was former NBA MVP Bob McAdoo. Ilo Mutombo (Dikembe's older brother) played Maina's on-court adversary. Nigel Miguel, a former UCLA standout who had appeared in White Men Can't Jump, played Maina's older brother.
At 19, Maina was the youngest of the group, and his potential was obvious. "I thought he had a chance to play college basketball in America," says McAdoo, now a scout for the Heat. "Just seeing his enthusiasm and his size, I knew there was something there."
The movie had only modest success at the box office, but to many who saw it, it was oddly memorable. According to Miguel, former stars such as Allen Iverson and Michael Jordan have mentioned the film over the years, but it's Shaquille O'Neal, playing to type, who liked to quote some of the more memorable lines ("I play for Winabi!").
Once the frenzy of the promotional tour subsided, Maina stayed in the States to pursue college opportunities. McAdoo, who was letting Maina stay with his family, called Jeff Price, head coach of Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., and asked him to take a look at a very raw but promising prospect. The result was a scholarship at the D-II level. This time, life imitated art.
Maina flourished. He was the starting center and a key contributor for a team that made the NCAA D-II Sweet 16 during the 1997--98 season. "His timing and ability to block shots was as good as any kid I've coached," says Price. Yet throughout Maina's two seasons in Boca, the shadow of Saleh loomed large. The local press couldn't believe its good fortune. (Sample lead: "The real life story of Charles Gitonga Maina may end up a sequel to the movie.")
After his two years of eligibility were up, Maina considered his options. Acting had offered few opportunities since his leading role. Instead Maina looked into a pro basketball career in Europe. McAdoo urged him not to go: If Maina didn't make a team, he could easily have visa problems and find it hard to get back into the U.S. But Maina had routinely defied the odds. Playing in Europe was the obvious next step.
Following the advice of his sports agent, he traveled to Greece for a tryout with a pro team. It did not go well, and Maina declines to tell me the details. Afterward he was denied reentry to the U.S. and forced to return to Kenya. It was the last time his American friends, coaches and teammates heard from him.
WHAT WAS it like after coming back?" Maina asks, anticipating my next question. "Lot of friends, you know how it goes. You're young and suddenly you have money. You don't know how to say no."
Maina, now living at hone with his parents, is a constant presence in the small Bermuda Triangle of bars in Buruburu. He tends to speak in contradictions. He says he freelances in foreign-currency-exchange markets from a nearby Internet café, but he hasn't checked his email or social media accounts in years and doesn't have a cellphone. He helps coach young kids from the neighborhood, but he doesn't own a basketball. In 2003 he spent three weeks in the hospital with a broken jaw after a mugging in which he was stabbed and hit in the head with a stone; a few years later he contracted tuberculosis. "I've been struggling with depression, I can't deny it," he says. "You expect your life to be here, you go downhill, you come back up, it continues."
His neighbors are unsure of what to make of their once-famous son. "People have the conception that if you go to the States, Wow, you're going to make it," he tells me. "Little did I know, life is the same everywhere, but with a different angle." At the end of each of these admissions Maina is careful to follow up with a platitude. No regrets. Bounced back. Life is good. He's just as charming as he was in the film.
I ask one last question: Can he still dunk? Maina lights up and offers to show me. We make plans to meet the following day on a nearby court. I'll find a ball; he'll bring his game.
THE AIR UP THERE culminates in perfect 1990s feel-good movie fashion. Saleh, newly introduced as the starting center of St. Joseph's University, walks off the court with Jimmy Dolan, who is promoted thanks to his unorthodox recruiting methods. They laugh, the music swells ("Higher and Higher"), and the final frame is a slow-motion high five. It's so cheesy that it's endearing. And it's not unlike what I have in mind while I wait for Maina on the court.
He is late, leaving me plenty of time to play out the coming scene in my head. He'll dunk, of course; it will be a cathartic slam. We'll laugh, music will swell, and Maina will realize that good times lie ahead.
After waiting a half hour, I head back toward the town center. I decide to check a bar, Doc's Pub, that Maina had pointed out the day before. At the far end is the unmistakable 6'9" shape of Charles Maina, head lowered, cradling a pint.
I ask where he's been. He turns slowly and takes a few moments to recognize me. "I was there," he says, his voice rising. He staggers to his feet and leans in close. "I was there," he repeats, louder, more aggressive.
"I'm sorry if there was a misunderstanding," I say. His wiry frame relaxes, and he puts his arm around me.
"Do you pray? ... I try to, in the mornings," he says, before losing his thought. I wait for him to continue, but he's done talking. I tell him I have to leave, and he gives me a hug and wishes me well. Outside, embarrassed by my own naiveté and guilty of the same latent paternalism as the film's protagonist, I arrange a ride to the airport.
It's hard not to get swept up in the current of a feel-good narrative. We crave stories of redemption and of success against incredible odds. But the true story of Charles Gitonga Maina isn't a Hollywood-ready tale, just a complicated life.
"Have I learned my lesson?" Maina wondered the day before. "I find it very hard to trust a human being. You give yourself, and they squeeze you out."
"What was it like after coming back? Lot of friends, you know how it goes.... You're young, and you DON'T KNOW HOW TO SAY NO."