In Basketball's D-League, Player Takes Long Shot At NBA Dream

John Holland, No. 10 of the D-League's Canton Charge, looks to pass the ball against the Sioux Falls Skyforce at Canton Memorial Civic Center on Jan. 23, in Canton, Ohio. The 19 teams of the D-League — the NBA's development league — crisscross the country in a grueling, 50-game season.

John Holland, No. 10 of the D-League’s Canton Charge, looks to pass the ball against the Sioux Falls Skyforce at Canton Memorial Civic Center on Jan. 23, in Canton, Ohio. The 19 teams of the D-League — the NBA’s development league — crisscross the country in a grueling, 50-game season. Matt Durisko/NBAE/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Matt Durisko/NBAE/Getty Images

The NBA is a league of millionaires, where even the lowest-paid benchwarmer earns more than $500,000 a season. But away from the spotlight, hundreds of players are striving to break in, grinding in the minor league basketball trenches of the D-League — “D” for development. They play for teams like the Canton Charge in Ohio, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ affiliate. During a five-month season that stretched through cities like Bakersfield and Grand Rapids, there was one shot that stood out — for both the team and the player who made it.

The moment was a single, high arcing jump shot.

John Holland has made countless of them in his life: on playgrounds, alone shooting in gyms, in high school and college games, and playing overseas.

But none compare to the shot Holland took in Portland, Maine, on April 7 — the very last shot the 27-year-old would make for the Canton Charge.

‘This Is The Grind, Chasing The Dream’

There are some things you should know about Holland. He was not groomed from early childhood to be a professional basketball player. His high school in the Bronx was known for its academics more than for sports. And he wasn’t recruited by major college programs.

“Coming out of high school I didn’t have any offers, Division I offers,” he says. “I thought I was good. Nobody else really on the Division I level thought I was good enough.”

Holland landed at Boston University, a Division I school but hardly a basketball powerhouse. After college, he signed with professional teams in France, Spain and Turkey. He made six figures, but the moves didn’t get him any closer to the NBA.

He figured his best shot was to come back to the States, and that’s how he wound up in Canton, in the D-League, making $19,000.

“Sometimes it’s about more than money, it’s about the dream,” he says. “And this year, this is what it’s about. This is the grind, chasing the dream.”

Holland, a 6-foot-5 guard for the Canton Charge, stretches during practice on Feb. 17.

Holland, a 6-foot-5 guard for the Canton Charge, stretches during practice on Feb. 17. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Holland lives outside of Canton, about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland. He shares a townhouse with a teammate, and his life is hardly what one would consider glamorous — especially for a professional athlete. There’s practice, weight-training and film sessions at a nearby community center, and the games themselves. Beyond that, the guys spend a lot of their free time just hanging out at the complex where many of them live.

It’s February, predictably cold and snowy. Mike Dunigan, a teammate, has come over to make a pasta dinner and watch a game with Holland and his roommate. But there’s a mess in the sink, and Dunigan draws the line: “No way, I’m not doing those dishes.” So the task falls to Holland.

Holland (center, wearing sweat band) and the rest of the Charge take a break during halftime in the locker room of the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Feb. 16.

Holland (center, wearing sweat band) and the rest of the Charge take a break during halftime in the locker room of the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Feb. 16. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

It’s a risk, choosing the D-League, when you can earn a lot more money playing overseas. Only a small fraction of D-League players get NBA call-ups. And for players at Holland’s position, the competition is fierce.

“I’m a guard, dime a dozen,” he says. “We’ll see what happens when it’s all said and done. But it’s also a thing where it could end at any second.”

As the season winds down, just one of his teammates gets a call-up, a player with previous NBA experience. Holland is just under the radar: not the highest scorer on the team, but consistently good, helping Canton to a 12-game winning streak and a spot in the D-League playoffs.

‘An Amazing Moment’

Holland’s pivotal shot for the Canton Charge comes during the second game of the team’s playoff series against the Maine Red Claws, the Boston Celtics’ D-League affiliate.

The game is close throughout. Holland makes two crucial 3-point shots to keep the pressure on the Red Claws.

With Canton up by one and less than a minute to go, the team’s point guard passes to Holland. He’s behind the 3-point line.

The 24-second shot clock ticks toward zero.

A defender — a former Celtics player who’s 6-foot-7 — is draped all over Holland, who’s 2 inches shorter.

There’s no other option: He has to let it fly.

YouTube

Holland goes straight up — his shot swishes through the net. It clinches the game, and the series, for Canton.

The excited play-by-play announcer compares the “unbelievable shot” to the dramatic basket by Villanova that won this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“It felt good when I released it,” Holland says later. “It was an amazing shot, an amazing moment. One that I’m going to remember forever now.”

Amazing, especially, because of what happens next: Three days after the shot, as he’s about to take a nap, Holland gets a life-changing call.

It’s his agent: John, you’re going to the NBA, to the Boston Celtics.

“I think I just sat back and screamed,” Holland says. “I was just happy. I just screamed in happiness. Then I called my parents. Called my girlfriend. Called everybody.”

Holland (second from right) and his teammates gather to pray before a game against Iowa Energy in the locker room of the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Feb. 16.

Holland (second from right) and his teammates gather to pray before a game against Iowa Energy in the locker room of the Canton Memorial Civic Center on Feb. 16. Maddie McGarvey for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Maddie McGarvey for NPR

Beating The Odds, For Now

It’s impossible to know whether Holland would have been called up by the NBA if he hadn’t made the shot. NBA scouts and officials regularly watch D-League games looking for players who can help their teams. But Holland was signed by the Celtics, whose D-League team Holland beat with his shot.

Mike Gansey is general manager of the Canton Charge.

“I’m sure that helped him with … whoever from the Celtics (was) watching, and saying, hey, this guy beat us up pretty good, why don’t we have him join us,” Gansey says.

The call-up couldn’t have come at a better time for Holland, because at age 27, the biological clock is ticking if you’re trying to crack into the NBA.

“In basketball,” Holland says, “life is short.”

And the odds are long — but for now, Holland has beaten them. He made $25,000 with the Celtics for two games and the playoffs, more than his salary for the entire D-League season.

He has a contract to play for the Celtics for next season, though it isn’t guaranteed.

The Celtics lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Holland played a grand total of one minute.

But that’s one minute more than he’d ever played in the NBA. Next season, he’ll have a shot at turning that single minute into many.

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The Sacred Glacier Is Melting But The Festival Goes On

The yearly festival is called Qoyllur Riti — Snow Star in the Quechua language. Wearing traditional garb as well as special outfits made for the event, worshipers travel many miles by truck, then face a steep six-hour hike to get to the site.

The yearly festival is called Qoyllur Riti — Snow Star in the Quechua language. Wearing traditional garb as well as special outfits made for the event, worshipers travel many miles by truck, then face a steep six-hour hike to get to the site. Sebastian Castañeda Vita hide caption

toggle caption Sebastian Castañeda Vita

On Sunday, May 22, over 100,000 Peruvians are expected to arrive at a site in the Andean highlands near the peak of Ausungate, in the southeastern region of Cusco. They may have traveled hundreds of miles to get there. At an altitude of 16,500 feet, they’ll camp out, sing, dance and pray at the holiest — and one of the biggest — religious festivals in the Andes mountain chain. It’s called Qoyllur Riti, which means “snow star” in the local Quechua language.

These days, the festival is an example of how climate change is affecting far more than daily life and agriculture. The mountains here are considered sacred by the worshippers and known as “apus,” or mountain spirits, gods. The tradition is for each province represented at the festival to carve out heavy chunks of ice from the glacier — symbolic of water and life — to bring back to their communities.

But things have changed.

“We can’t take snow down from the glacier anymore,” says Walter Mamami, a participant from the Canchis province. “The glacier is getting smaller. We now stop at the foot of the glacier.”

Each province represented at the festival used to carve out heavy chunks of ice from the glacier — symbol of water and life — to bring back to their communities.

Each province represented at the festival used to carve out heavy chunks of ice from the glacier — symbol of water and life — to bring back to their communities. Sebastian Castañeda Vita hide caption

toggle caption Sebastian Castañeda Vita

The festival itself is a combination of native and Catholic traditions. It celebrates the reappearance of the Pleiades constellation in the night sky, marking the start of the Andean new year and the harvest season. There’s a Christian context as well: According to a legend, in 1780, a fair-skinned boy appeared to a young shepherd who lived in the mountains, then turned to stone when suspicious villagers came after him. The belief is that the boy was Jesus.

That was a time of tension between the local peoples and Spain, which ruled Peru from the 16th century until the 1820s. Spain tried to quash the Indian language and culture. But in the case of the festival, the two cultures, Spanish and Andean, became intertwined.

I visited the festival last year, following a group of official guardians of the Qoyllus Riti tradition, known as pablitos in Spanish or ukukos in the local language.

The pilgrimage itself is a test of endurance, a penitence of sorts. It takes days to arrive as villagers travel in open trucks most of the way, stopping in every village along the way to pray, dance and sing. There’s lots of coca-leaf chewing and nonstop music to keep the deeply devoted pilgrims going with little or no rest. Worshippers disembark in Mahauyani, the furthest trucks can go, before hiking another six hours to cover the final steep 6 miles to their destination.

The festival has both native and Catholic traditions.

The festival has both native and Catholic traditions. Sebastian Castañeda Vita hide caption

toggle caption Sebastian Castañeda Vita

On the vast plain in the glacial basin of Sinakara, surrounded by snow-covered peaks, a cacophony of round-the-clock music and prayers blares from loudspeakers at the chapel on the site. People come wearing their community’s traditional dress as well as special outfits made for the festival. “Hairy” woolen robes worn by the ukukos are a reminder of a mythical bear, believed to live in the surrounding mountains. Meanwhile colorfully dressed male dancers bounce around carrying what looks like a stuffed baby llama on their backs.

“The glacier receded a lot,” Jaime Rios Farfan, from the Acomayo province, told me after he returned from the main ritual at the foot of the glacier — 1,500 vertical feet higher than the camp site — held at sunrise. “We prayed and asked Apu Qollqupunko [the name of the peak], that the glacier not recede any more, that it not disappear.”

At the celebration in years past, each community had its own area in the snowfields where it would carry out its rituals and prayers. Participants from the province of Paucartambo said only muddy land remains in its reserved area.

“It’s a sad reality,” says Rios Farfan.

If and when the glacier disappears, “It will threaten peaceful coexistence between the groups,” says Javier Felix, an anthropologist, speaking of possible tensions between those communities that might still have a sacred area on the glacier and those that don’t.

He lamented that many of the younger “guardians” didn’t appear to understand the importance of the glaciers to the spiritual traditions. “The elders understand,” he adds.

What the elders can’t understand is why no one seems to care about earth’s changing climate.

“The big factories and all the garbage are destroying the ozone layers. Over here while it used to be all white, there are more and more rocks,” admits Rios Farfan.

Indeed, last year at the festival, local chiefs criticized the world’s disrespect for Mother Nature.

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'Girls On Fire' Is Terrifying, Upsetting And Beautiful

Girls on Fire

On the first page of Girls on Fire, author Robin Wasserman asks us to imagine a group of teenage girls on a bus. “Give in: Pick a pair of them, lost in each other, a matched set like a vision out of the past,” she writes. “Nobody special, two nobodies. Except that together, they’re radioactive: together, they glow.”

The two nobodies at the center of Wasserman’s novel — set in a small western Pennsylvania town in the early 1990s — are Hannah Dexter and Lacey Champlain. They form a friendship based on their mutual hatred of popular classmate Nikki Drummond, their high school’s mean girl in chief.

Lacey is a newcomer to the town of Battle Creek; with her grunge sensibilities and adoration of Kurt Cobain, she’s treated with suspicion and mild curiosity by her new schoolmates. Lacey takes a liking to Hannah, whom she renames “Dex” — Hannah, who has spent years without a close friend, is happy for the attention. “I’d been lonely for so long, I’d forgotten that I was,” she muses.

The two girls loathe Nikki, who hasn’t become any nicer since her boyfriend, Craig, committed suicide on Halloween. “[Craig] was nothing to me, or less than,” Hannah recalls, while Nikki, even in mourning, “only became more fully Nikki. Not purified but distilled: essence of bitch.”

Lacey and Hannah quickly grow devoted to each other, to an unsettling degree, as Lacey becomes interested in Satanism, at one point baptizing her baby brother with an upside-down cross, drawn in the blood from a raw steak. Hannah’s mother has serious misgivings about the friendship, but her father grows close — maybe too close — to his daughter’s new friend.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much of the plot of Girls on Fire. The first adult novel (and with its scenes of sex and violence, it’s very, very adult) from young adult author Wasserman, much of its power depends on the suspense that she carefully constructs. That’s not to say this is a run-of-the-mill thriller; it’s a perfectly constructed literary novel, but one that dares its readers to put it down.

And it’s nearly impossible to put down. Much of that is because Wasserman’s characters are so flawlessly realized — Hannah is an appealing everygirl, Lacey is compelling and terrifying, and Nikki is surprisingly complex, a sadistic manipulator who may or may not actually have a good heart.

All friendships have their ups and downs, but for teenagers, those are writ large. Wasserman’s portrayal of the relationship between Lacey and Hannah is beautifully done — the two become dependent on each other, and fantasize about moving to Seattle and getting “a beanbag chair and a cat named Ginsberg.

Their fantasy becomes all-consuming. “We would be orphans; we would be ghosts,” Hannah thinks. “We would disappear from the mundane world into one of our own making. We would be wild. We would be free. This was the promise we made to each other, and this, if nothing else, we would keep.”

It’s exceedingly difficult to put Girls on Fire down, even for a few minutes, but toward the end, it’s almost painful to keep reading. That’s not because of Wasserman’s writing, which is poetic and beautiful, but because it quickly becomes apparent that a happy ending isn’t in store for any of the characters. The reader knows that bad things are coming; the nature of those bad things is unclear, though, right until the shocking, masterful ending.

Wasserman does so many things right in Girls on Fire, it’s hard to count them all. She’s a tough but empathetic writer, and she portrays Hannah’s feelings for her new best friend without a trace of adult condescension: “I wanted to remind [Lacey] what she’d taught me, that life was only as cruel as you allowed it to be, that Battle Creek belonged to us by choice and we could choose to abandon it. … I wanted, most of me wanted, to save her.”

Wasserman’s novel turns the Satanic panic of the Reagan-Bush years on its head, and the result is a novel that’s terrifying, upsetting and hypnotically beautiful. There’s not a false step in it, and you never want it to end, although you know it has to. Girls on Fire is an inferno — it’s brutally gorgeous, and you know it could explode anytime, but you can’t turn away, even for a second.

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Cue The Political Commentary: Grad Speeches In An Election Year

The commencement speech season is underway and grads are soaking up advice and wisdom all over the country.

And since it’s an election year, it’s hard for speakers to resist stepping onto the soapbox.

Last weekend, President Obama spoke at Rutgers University in New Jersey, one of the nation’s oldest higher ed institutions. He appeared to take a jab at Donald Trump — though he didn’t call him out by name.

“Class of 2016, let me be as clear as I can be: In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue,” he told grads.

Obama continued, “When our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, when actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.”

In Philadelphia, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the mastermind behind the Broadway hit Hamilton spoke at the University of Pennsylvania — asking forgiveness for having just one Philly reference in his musical. He also made his political point in a brief nod to immigration:

In a year when politicians traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric, there is also a Broadway musical reminding us that a broke, orphan immigrant from the West Indies built our financial system. A story that reminds us that since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done.

If these political commentaries seem a bit one-sided, it may be because commencement speakers often skew to the left, and this year appears to be no exception.

But these speeches are just the beginning. There are still many, many more to come this graduation season — including NPR Ed’s Claudio Sanchez, who delivers the commencement speech for DePaul University College of Education in June.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for life advice — like “Do not pick your nose in public,” from Sandra Bullock, or job advice — such as, “Try not to get a regular job,” from Jay Leno — you should check out NPR Ed’s online commencement database.

We sifted through hundreds of grad speeches (dating back to 1774) and compiled our favorites.

We Need Your Help!

In the next few weeks, we’ll be updating the database with the best speeches from the 2015 and 2016 seasons. If you see a great graduation speech this month or next month, let us know and we’ll put it in.

Here are just a few we’re looking forward to:

  • Jessye Norman (May 23) — Oberlin College
  • Atul Gawande (June 10) — California Institute of Technology
  • Seth Meyers (June 17) — Northwestern University
  • David Lynch (June 18) — Maharishi University of Management

You can see a more comprehensive list from the blog Graduation Wisdom here.


Tell us about your favorite graduation speeches — We’re on Twitter at @npr_ed. Our Facebook page is here or you can drop us an email at NPREd@npr.org.

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Tanzanian president sacks minister for being drunk on the job

Tanzania’s president has sacked his home affairs minister after he turned up to parliament and answered questions while under the influence of alcohol, the presidency said late on Friday.

President John Magufuli, who took office in November, has promised to tackle corruption and inefficiency in government. He has sacked several senior officials for graft and cut spending he deemed wasteful, such as scrapping official Christmas cards.

Charles Kitwanga is the first minister to be fired since the cabinet’s appointment. Analysts said his sacking came as a surprise as he was widely viewed as being close to Magufuli.

The presidential State House said in a statement Kitwanga was sacked after he “turned up drunk to parliament and responded to a question directed to the Ministry of Home Affairs while being in a drunken state.”

It did not say when the episode took place.

Kitwanga had previously faced calls to quit before the incident by lawmakers who criticized his handling of the ministry. Kitwanga could not immediately be reached for comment.

Government red tape and official corruption have often been blamed by businesses for slowing down or deterring investment in the poor African nation, which has discovered offshore gas reserves that it is seeking to develop.

Magufuli has said would impose discipline on the civil service and public institutions.

(Reporting by Fumbuka Ng’wanakilala; Editing by Edmund Blair and Elaine Hardcastle)

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Today's Tools For Combating Zika Mosquitoes Hark Back To 1945

The title card from a 1945 government film about the campaign to control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and prevent dengue and yellow fever.

The title card from a 1945 government film about the campaign to control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes and prevent dengue and yellow fever. CDC/YouTube hide caption

toggle caption CDC/YouTube

“It’s up to you,” said a 1945 public service announced aimed at Americans. Find “one of man’s worst enemies” and “destroy their foxholes.”

The video came from the Office of Malaria Control in War Areas (now known as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And it was talking about a particular species of mosquito, Aedes aegypti — the very same mosquito in the news now. Back then, public health officials were mostly worried about dengue and yellow fevers.

A Boy Scout helpfully dumps out stagnant water — a potential breeding ground for dangerous mosquitoes.

The video opens with the cartoon image of a man bludgeoning a giant mosquito, its tongue hanging out and white-and-black striped legs akimbo. Pamphlets showed people how to destroy breeding sites. Boy Scouts, “prepared and anxious to undertake their duties,” went from house to house dumping out wagons, telling housewives to change the water in vases every few days, and turning empty cans and bottles upside down. They also emptied tires and punctured cans in trash piles, so that they couldn’t refill with water.

Activities like that were part of an international anti-mosquito campaign that started in the early 1900s and actually worked. Cases of yellow fever dropped in urban areas, and a 1961 map proclaimed that much of the Americas — including Brazil and Colombia — had made a big dent in the mosquito populations. But shortly after, the mosquitoes made a comeback.

And here we are, 70 years later, still trying to reduce populations of the same mosquito. The message is much the same — dump out containers of standing water, cover cisterns and rain barrels, and try to keep from being bitten. It’s just that now there are probably fewer Boy Scouts involved.

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Secret Service Shoots Armed Man Near White House

The Secret Service says one of its officers shot a man with a gun after he refused to drop his weapon, just outside the White House on Friday afternoon.

The FBI, among other law enforcement agencies who continue to investigate the security breach, say there’s no known connection to terrorism right now.

From the Associated Press:

The armed man approached the checkpoint on E Street shortly after 3 p.m., and ignored repeated orders from the officer to drop his gun, according to a statement from David Iacovetti, a Secret Service deputy assistant director.

The officer fired one shot at the man and the gun was recovered at the scene, Iacovetti said. The man was transported in critical condition to a nearby hospital, an emergency medical services spokesman said.

“No one within or associated with the White House was injured, and everyone in the White House is safe and accounted for,” an unnamed White House official said in an email, according to Reuters.

The White House was placed on an hour-long lockdown, where Vice President Joe Biden was reported as secure, while President Obama was away playing golf at Andrews Airforce Base, adds the AP. First Lady Michelle Obama’s office would not say whether she or the Obama daughters were at the White House at the time.

The FBI, the Secret Service, D.C. police and U.S. Park Police, who continue to investigate motive, say there’s “no known nexus to terrorism” at this time, in a joint email statement.

The incident follows a string of lapses by the Secret Service and calls for changes within the agency to bolster security by hiring more personnel, improving training and boosting leadership, as we’ve reported. In September 2014, a knife-wielding man scaled the fence on the north lawn and made it past the front door of the White House before being apprehended.

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Sanders Campaign Still Leads In Fundraising; Its Spending Is Even Higher

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally Wednesday at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, Calif. The senator's campaign is intently focused on a big win in the state on June 7, and has poured money into TV ads there.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addresses a rally Wednesday at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, Calif. The senator’s campaign is intently focused on a big win in the state on June 7, and has poured money into TV ads there. Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

The Sanders campaign feels the burn rate.

Its cash-on-hand plummeted last month, from $17.5 million in March to just $5.8 million on April 30. The numbers were reported in the campaign’s monthly filing at the Federal Election Commission.

The drop followed a sharp fall-off in fundraising. Although Sanders has led Hillary Clinton in fundraising every month this year, April receipts totaled only $26.9 million, versus $46 million in March.

Sanders has poured money onto California’s costly TV markets, as he fights for an edge in the June 7 primary. His March fundraising — his strongest this year — barely outpaced his spending. And in April, spending exceeded receipts by 43 percent.

Clinton’s FEC report shows April fundraising off 7 percent from March — $25 million versus 26.8 million. But she spent relatively little, $23.9 million, and finished April with $30.2 million available. Her cash on hand has been in the range of $30 million on six of the seven reports filed since the campaign began.

A new microsite launched by the Sanders campaign celebrates its fundraising, which has set records for small-donor contributions. The site says the campaign has 2.4 million donors, and has raised 94 percent of its money online.

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Nigeria, You Win! Your Development Plan May Be The 'Best In History'

Lariat Alhassan had lots of great paint to sell but no office where she could meet clients. And then she heard an ad on the radio that seemed too good to be true.

Lariat Alhassan had lots of great paint to sell but no office where she could meet clients. And then she heard an ad on the radio that seemed too good to be true. Courtesy of Lariat Alhassan hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Lariat Alhassan

In 2011, Lariat Alhassan had a business in Abuja, Nigeria. Larclux Paint was the name. She sold house paint. And industrial paint. Textured paint. Paint that fills in cracks in your walls. It was a paint company. But a really small one.

“The employee I had was just me. I was the production manager. I was the marketer. I was delivery person. I was everything,” says Alhassan, laughing. “Except the security.”

That was the company. A woman in her late 20s and a security guard watching over a factory space she rented to make the paint.

Customers liked her paint. They would try it out, and say “This seems great. I’d like to place a big order. We’ll come to your office to sign the papers,” she recalls. And that is when things would get awkward.

“I kept telling them, no, no, no. You call me and whenever you want, I’ll be there. I will just be there,” she says.

She didn’t have an office. Just her car. At this point the clients would often just back out. She couldn’t afford an office without more clients. She couldn’t get more clients without an office. She felt trapped. Stuck.

That was back in 2011. And then one day, she was at home listening to some music on the radio, when these ads came on. It seemed as if the radio was talking right to her, she recalled. It was for some sort of program to help small businesses.

“It may be small today but it won’t be after You Win! the youth enterprise and innovation competition,” said one ad. (You can hear it in the episode of Planet Money.)

The government was having a nationwide contest to give out US$58 million to young Nigerians trying to start or grow a small business,no experience necessary. Almost no strings attached. Just go to the website and sign up, said the ad.

Alhassan thought it was too good to be true.

“I just wanted to make sure I was safe and I wasn’t going to be conned” she said.

But it was no scam. The government really was giving away millions of dollars. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, was the finance minister for Nigeria at the time. Her team set up the program. It was part of a massive nationwide plan to boost youth employment. About half of the young people didn’t have jobs, according to the World Bank.

“Everyone wants to run something, start their own business. Be their own boss,” says Iweala. “But the entrepreneurs often operate in an informal way. A lot of them are young people. And they want to expand their businesses but don’t know how.”

This is a problem around the world: How to get a small business to become a medium-size business that can become a big business. Because if you can figure out how to do that … you can make a dent in all kinds of other problems: unemployment, poverty. You name it. But in the developing world, small businesses rarely take off like that.

One problem is just money. In someplace like the United States, if you have a two-person paint company and need to rent out office space or warehouse space, you can just take out a small business loan.

In the developing world, in places like Nigeria, it is very hard to get that kind of loan. When a whole business is just a person with a trunk full of supplies, it is hard for lenders, like a bank or the government, to tell the good businesses from the bad ones. It is risky making those kinds of loans. So d small businesspeople can’t get loans.

The idea that Iweala and her team came up with to boost employment took all of this into account. It was a massive business contest the likes of which nobody in Nigeria had seen before. The amount of money they wanted to give away per person — roughly $50,000 — was out-of-this-world high. About 25 or 30 times the average annual income for a Nigerian at the time.

Iweala shopped the idea around the Nigerian government. People had all sorts of questions. How is the government going to decide which people to give the money to? And how will they make sure people don’t divert the funds to some other use?

Iweala and her team’s solution was to ask the entrants to submit a business plan: a few sheets of paper with an idea, maybe a chart or two, a budget. The government would read them all, pick the best ones and hand out the money.

Not everyone in the government was convinced that could work. Iweala remembers her colleagues saying things like, “These people have never written business plans.”It’s one thing if you say you’re going to invite 40 people, 50. But we’re talking [about] thousands.”

But Goodluck Jonathan, the president of Nigeria at the time, liked the idea right away. He gave it the greenlight.

There were still problems to confront. How do you pull something like this off in Nigeria — a country where trust in government is notoriously low.

People outside the government, the people who would to apply to the contest, also needed convincing. “They said, ‘Oh we’ve had so many government programs,’ and ‘It starts with promises and at the end of the day it’s never implemented,’ “says Iweala.

Then there was the worry that people running the contest would just give the money to friends and family. “That was the even bigger skepticism,” says Iweala.

So Iweala’s team had to make sure it was really clear how winners were getting picked … and who was doing the picking. For the initial review of applications they lined up graders from a local business school. And all the names of the applicants were removed before grading.

About 24,000 people applied to the contest, which was also supported by other federal ministries, the World Bank, the U.K.’s Department for International Development and Nigeria’s private sector.

For the second round, the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers was brought in to do part of the scoring. And the British Plymouth Business School did quality assurance. The applicants knew all of these checks and balances were in place, which upped their trust.

But that still left the hard question, how to score it Who were the best candidates to get the money? Was it the very best, or would that be wasted money because those people might succeed anyway and not need the money? And how could you tell the difference between the 1,200th and the 1,201st candidate in any meaningful way?

This is where they reached out to a researcher at the World Bank. “I typically come in when people have an idea and they want to know if it will work,” says David McKenzie.

At this point, in mid-2011, Iweala wanted to launch the program in two months. McKenzie met with a few team members in in the cafe of the J building at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. to hash out ways to grade the entrants and measure the results.

One idea was to just rank every entry and pick the best. From his research, McKenzie suggested a different course of action: Pick the winners somewhat randomly Sure you can look at the business plans and pick out the very best. And the very worst. Those are usually obvious. But after you have the outliers, he argued, just make it luck of the draw. It’ll save a lot of trouble.

Plus if you do it randomly, you can measure the impact of winning by looking at the control group of non-winners, says McKenzie.

That was the plan.

They gave the contest the name: the YouWiN! Competition. And in late 2011, they started getting the word out. With ads, lots and lots of ads – in print, on TV and on the radio.

And that’s how Alhassan, the paint seller, came to hear an ad for YouWiN! coming out of her bedside radio that day.

“Lots of people did not believe it,” she says. But after hearing it a second and a third time, she said to herself: “Lariat, why don’t you pick up this opportunity? Try. Try, and see if it will work out for you.”

She took out her old laptop, plugged in her modem and went online and applied. A little while later she was one of the 6,000 invited to the next round. Where everyone would write their business plans.

The government provided some help. The applicants were invited to four day trainings held around the country. When Alhassan describes it, she said it felt like thousands of people packing into something like a concert hall. There were all kinds of applicants: A baker without enough machinery. A chicken farmer thinking of expanding to catfish and snails. Someone trying to start a computer school. Musicians. Dentists. People will all kinds of business plans.

“Boy it was intense. From morning to evening,” says Alhassan. But they did get lunch. “And breakfast,” she says, laughing.

Then she was asked to take what she just learned and write up a formal business plan. This was the real test. The real competition.

She sent it in and went home to wait. A little while later she got an email. Congratulations, it said.

“I felt I couldn’t even control my emotions. I started jumping on my bed,” she says. “My sister said what is wrong with you, have you won the lottery? I said yes. Yes. Yes.”

Alhassan got 10 million Naira, for her business — equivalent to $65,000.

She brought on marketers. Salespeople. She bought them a car to get around, to get the word out. She got a truck for deliveries so it wasn’t all out of her own trunk anymore. And she rented a proper office and a showroom. She decorated it with furniture she could be proud of.

“I can confidently say [to customers] now, ‘Please come to my office. You can come here. What time? I’ll be ready for you. I’ll be waiting for you,” she says.

Well, you might look at this and say, of course she was able to do this. She was given $65,000 — and it wasn’t even a loan.

The real question is how her business does down the road — and all the other businesses as well, from the dentists to the chicken farmer who wants to expand into catfish. Was it worth it for the government? Did it create jobs?

The World Bank analyzed the YouWiN! Competition impact over three years and published a report a few months ago.

The report looked at the 1,200 winners of the contest and found they had created 7,000 jobs, real jobs that stuck around three years later. The competition cost $60 million to run. So that means each job cost about $8,500 to create, a way cheaper investment than any other program studied in the report.

Chris Blattman, an economist at Columbia University who researches poverty and global development, thinks the results are pretty remarkable.

“I remember reading it [and] my eyes [kept] kind of popping out of my head,” he says. The thing that stood out to him most was that the winners, as a group, seemed to use the money pretty well. They didn’t waste it. He says it was easier than expected to find small businesses that could use a big pile of cash to grow. Maybe way more people are constrained by not having enough capital than we think.

Nigeria has had two more rounds of the YouWiN! Competition. The latest round had more than 100,000 applicants and 1,500 winners.

As good as the first round was, 7,000 new jobs is still a small number in a country of 170 million people. It’s clearly not going to solve the problem of unemployment.

But Blattman says, these results are extremely promising. So promising he wrote a euphoric blog post in October with the title: “Is This The Most Effective Development Program In History?”

But is it?

He stresses the question mark at the end of the title. It may not really be the best in history, he says, but he’s quick to add: “It’s probably the best I’ve seen so far. In history, it’s the best one we’ve measured.”

That’s something, considering that in so many cases of job creation programs, nobody measures the results at all.

Big thanks to Jeff Mosenkis at the Institute for Poverty Action for all the help behind the scenes on this story.

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