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Saturday, July 20, 2019

Roots: Sparks Stars, Fans Learn African Lineage in Post-Game “Know Your Heritage” Event

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Photo Caption: DeLisha Milton-Jones, the Los Angeles Sparks’ 6-1 power forward, notched 11 points and hauled down six boards in L.A.‘s 84-71 thumping of the Tulsa Shock Friday night, then returned to the court for a post-game concert and event sponsored by the Africa Channel to learn that she is descended from African royalty among the Hausa and Yoruba tribes of Nigeria. Milton-Jones and other members of the Sparks will travel to Africa in the off-season to visit their newly discovered countries of ancestral origin and promote the sport of basketball there.

Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©

By Lee Michaelson

The fit was a natural: Former NBC, WNBC and KNBC executive Paula Madison, now the majority owner of the Los Angeles Sparks through her family investment group, also owns the Africa Channel, a cable entertainment network focusing not only of those currently residing on the African continent but also on the influence of African culture throughout the world.

Throughout the 2011 season, Africa Channel news crews have been following the Sparks’ games and players, and in turn several Sparks players of African heritage—among them, Candace Parker, Ebony Hoffman, Noelle Quinn and DeLisha Milton-Jones—underwent DNA testing to learn their genetic ancestry as part of the Africa Channel’s Know Your Heritage Campaign. Plans call for the players to journey to their countries of genetic origin, where they will volunteer time to help develop youth basketball initiatives in conjunction with Right to Play and Basketball without Borders.

On Friday, September 9, following their 84-73 win over the visiting Tulsa Shock, the Sparks capped off their Fan Appreciation Night with a post-game concert featuring old school music by R&B legend Howard Hewitt of Shalamar and Dazz Band, and the public disclosure of the genetic test results of Milton-Jones and Hoffman. Tests results of all four players will be revealed on an L.A. Sparks special that will air on the Africa Channel this fall.

Early in the post-game program genetic researcher Dr. Rick Kittles, founder of African Ancestry, Inc., demonstrated the ease of collecting DNA samples, performing cheek swabs on the Sparks’ game announcer. Several fans at the game won at-home DNA ancestry test kits, which can also be purchased through African Ancestry.

Once collected (users are encouraged to take three samples to reduce the likelihood of error), the samples are then submitted by mail to African Ancestry’s Washington-based lab, which returns results within four-to-six weeks after submission.

Kittles, who is a co-director of the National Human Genome Center at Howard University, claims that his lab is able to use the DNA samples and his African lineage database, which he says is the most comprehensive in the world with more than 20,000 lineages included, to trace the user’s matrilineal roots not just to the African continent, but to the current African country and specific tribe of lineal origin. Testing, according to his web site, results in identical matches in approximately seven out of 10 cases. For the remaining 30 percent of submissions, Kittles’s web site also claims the ability to identify “closely related” matches with greater than 90 percent confidence.”

Kittles’s firm can also test for the patrilineal heritage of male clients submitting samples. This test is available only to men because the information pertaining to male heritage is carried only on the Y-chromosone, says Kittles, who traced his own female ancestry to the Hausa tribe in Northern Nigeria. Kittles then went to Nigeria to learn more about the culture and traditions of his ancestors, in the process finding two people who looked like they could have been cousins.

Kittles’s web site warns that there are no guarantees that a user’s DNA will be traced to Africa, particularly for men seeking confirmation of patrilineal heritage. For example, the test could discover white male ancestors who may have owned a black female ancestor, a result that can prove unsettling to some. “We find African ancestry for approximately 65% of the paternal lineages we test,” claims the site. “The remaining 35% of the lineages we test typically indicate European ancestry.” In comparison, the site claims to find African ancestry in approximately 92 percent of the lineages it tests.

Kittles says the information derived from the testing not only helps foster a sense of groundedness and identity among African-Americans and others unable to employ more traditional genealogical methods to explore their heritage, but also helps to shed light on genetic and environmental contributions to diseases ranging obesity, hypertension and asthma to Type II diabetes and prostate cancer, all of which have disproportionately high incidences among African Americans.

Madison, whose own family took the DNA African ancestry test, learned that she was descended from the Akan people, and specifically from the Ashanti (or Asante) tribe, of Ghana, who came to the United States by way of Jamaica. She described it as a life-changing experience, not only for herself but for her family as well.

“It changed our lives,” said Madison. “When you find out where you’re from, you also find out where people in your family are from.” Madison said she was “blessed to travel to Ghana,” where her family further learned they had royal roots within the Ashanti tribe. She even met with the tribe’s king, who bestowed on her the name of his deceased mother.

Midway through the post-game festivities, Milton-Jones and Hoffman were brought out to receive their results—for the first time—in front of the crowd. Milton-Jones said she had been “anxiously awaiting” the test results since providing her samples, and said the possible results had been the subject of “polls” in the locker room.

“I hope I win,” said Milton-Jones. “I hope I’m from royalty or something.”

She was, as it turned out. All Milton-Jones knew about her family’s roots is that they had migrated from Brooklyn, New York, to Riceboro, Georgia, because her mother suffered from asthma.

According to Kittles, Milton-Jones’s DNA test revealed a “very distinct lineage” that included African royalty. Milton-Jones’s family is descended from two specific ethnic groups in Nigeria, Kittles explained: The Hausa—“a rather tall tribe in Nigeria” (Milton-Jones stands 6-1, but boasts a wingspan of more than seven feet) and the Yoruba. The Hausa still play a prominent role in politics and governance within Nigeria, said Kittles, while the Yoruba people, 30-50 million strong, are a central force in Nigerian culture and religion. The Yoruba religion is still actively practiced in parts of Brazil among descendants of slaves there.

Milton-Jones, who is married but has not yet had children, garnered another insight: The Yoruba have the highest rate of twinning in the world. (Dizygotic twins represent 4.4 percent of all maternities among the Yoruba.)

“Twins! Oh, I hope I have twins,” said an ecstatic Milton-Jones.

Turning more serious, she added, “This is a very proud moment for me I feel my life has come full circle. I feel complete.”

Photo Caption: Ebony Hoffman, who returned to her home in L.A. this season after playing much of her professional basketball career in Indiana, learned that she is closely related to the Limba, an agricultural tribe in today’s Sierra Leone, many of whom came to the U.S. as slaves to become rice growers in South Carolina.
Photo Credit: Full Court Press/Lee Michaelson©/i>

The L.A.-born Hoffman brought three generations of family members to the game to share with her in the discovery of their lineage. Asked what she knew of her family’s heritage, Hoffman explained that her mom was from Little Rock, Arkansas, but migrated to California at the age of 9 or 10. Her father was from Oklahoma, and somewhere in her family’s ancestry there were stories of some Blackfoot Indian blood, she said.

“We found a very strong connection to the Limba people from Sierra Leone,” said Kittles of Hoffman’s DNA test results. The Limba, too, were a “very prominent” tribe, he added, the third largest ethnic group in their country. The Limba are known as a hardworking people, strong in agricultural pursuits and particularly in the growing of rice. Many of their descendants became slaves, growing rice in South Carolina, said Kittles.

“I guess that’s where I get my green thumb,” responded Hoffman.

Both players are looking forward to the opportunity to travel to their ancestral homelands to learn more about themselves and their roots, while at the same time helping the sport at which they have excelled take root on the African continent.

Originally published Fri, September 09, 2011

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Week: February 7, 2012
1 Baylor (31) 24-0 1 1 1 775
2 Notre Dame 23-1 2 2 2 743
3 Connecticut 21-2 3 4 3 710
4 Stanford 20-1 4 5 4 685
5 Duke 19-3 6 8 5 650
6 Miami (FL) 20-3 7 7 6 604
7 Kentucky 21-3 5 15 7 584
8 Maryland 20-3 10 10 8 534
9 Wisconsin-Green Bay 20-0 9 24 9 530
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23 Georgia Tech 16-6 22 NR-RV
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25 Vanderbilt 18-5 NR-RV
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Others receiving votes: St. Bonaventure (22-2) 34; North Carolina (17-6) 19; California (17-6) 18; Florida Gulf Coast (21-2) 16; Middle Tennessee (19-5) 15; Texas-El Paso (20-2) 8; Texas Tech (16-6) 5; Brigham Young (21-4) 4; Fresno State (19-4) 4; St. John's (15-8) 4; Princeton (15-4) 3; Oklahoma (15-7) 2; West Virginia (17-6) 2; Kansas State (15-7) 1.
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Credit: Courtesy Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA). The weekly Division I Top 25 Coaches' Poll, sponsored by USA Today and ESPN, is based on voting by a Board of Coaches made up of 31 head coaches at Division I institutions all of whom are WBCA members.