Get rich, die happy - playing basketball in Africa

Get rich, die happy - playing basketball in Africa

Posted by Mami Wata on July 28, 2021

Words by Tsolo Makara

Nigeria recently beat the mighty USA in a game of basketball. This headline would have seemed impossible until it happened. And yes it was just a friendly match in the build up to the Tokyo Olympic Games, but the result is hugely significant and symbolic of more than just the rise of the sport of basketball in Africa. 

Mami Wata_Nicole Sweet
Photo: Nicole Sweet

For most of history, large economic opportunities in Africa have been extractive. Raw materials farmed, mined or harvested on the continent are exported to be turned into finished products elsewhere - creating value offshore, but leaving very little at home.  In many ways, this has been the shape of Africa’s economic relationship with the rest of the world. And it is the same for athletes, artists and intellectuals. To achieve success and fortune, you need to leave home and crack it in the big leagues of Europe or America. 

However, slow at first, then all at once, this dynamic is changing. And recent happenings in African basketball speak directly to this. 

What NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and Basketball Africa League (BAL) President Amadou Gallo Fall, and their teams, have accomplished with the recent conclusion of the inaugural BAL tournament in Kigali, Rwanda already seems to be bearing some tasty fruit. The tournament saw 12 teams from across the continent qualify from their local country leagues and compete in a bubble in Kigali to determine the winner. Egyptian powerhouse, Zamalek were crowned champions of the hugely successful tournament.

This is the first time the NBA is collaborating to operate a league outside North America so it carries significant reputational and financial risks for them if not done right. Those last four words are critical, “if not done right”.

With the largest youth population in the world today, it makes sense for the NBA to get more invested in Africa despite any perceived risks. It remains a largely untapped market with soccer being the premier sport on the continent. The potential for growth in the number of fans and players of basketball is immense and this has downstream benefits for the sale of merchandise, sneakers and television rights.

And there are obvious and immediate opportunities for the players. Take for example Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76’ers, a native Cameroonian. At the age of 15 he was planning on becoming a professional volleyball player in Europe before he was invited to a local basketball camp where he was spotted by Luc Mbah a Moute, a fellow native of Yaounde and an NBA player. He’s now a baller at the highest level, with the bank balance to match. 

The exciting reality is that there are many more Joel Embiids in Africa. The NBA and the BAL just have to carry on raising the profile of the game in Africa so that more young people see basketball as a viable sporting choice, whether for enjoyment, exercise or as a means of earning a living. A vision where making it to the NBA is but a step in the right direction and not the final destination. 

But how?

Mami Wata_Nicole Sweet

Photo: Nicole Sweet

The story of African basketball is similar to many other sports. Africans are some of the best players in the big global franchises but for some reason, that level of individual success has not translated into accolades for African National teams when they play in World Cups or the Olympics. The issue is that many local African players do not play against elite competition week after week outside of the major international tournaments and so the “step up” becomes a bridge too far. The BAL can go a long way towards changing that.

So far, the early signs are that the NBA is doing things right. Amadou Gallo Fall and his team started the first Junior NBA program in Phokeng, South Africa in 2011 that has since expanded to 14 other African countries. The program has gone from strength to strength with a number of young participants going on to further their studies abroad on the back of their basketball skills. A few have gone on to play internationally, but the aim of the program is to give the kids more than just on-court skills. It aims to provide life skills and the chance to further their education. 

The 15 Junior NBA initiatives have been hugely successful and are viewed as the first step in the process of elite talent identification and development. The next step was the development of the NBA Academy Africa in Saly, Senegal in 2018. The logical step after that was the formation of the Basketball Africa League and that would close the loop from grassroots to the pros.

The obvious question is once all that talent is developed, where does it go? The NBA can absorb only a precious few players. The BAL therefore provides an avenue for these young players to showcase their talent, monetise it and thus grow an industry. It is a chance for people to turn their passion into their profession.

There is no doubt that the NBA is one of the most successful, lucrative and well-run leagues of any sport in the world today. To bring that level of professionalism to the game of basketball in Africa will have tremendous benefits for how national leagues are run, how team executives go about their business, league officials conduct themselves as well as how the “product” is packaged and presented across the many media and broadcasting channels.

A well-run, professional league that is exciting to watch and a strong revenue generator will have a tremendous impact in Africa. Amadou Gallo Fall repeatedly references the importance of building a thriving, pan-African basketball ecosystem that provides opportunities for players, coaches, administrators and media personnel. .

Juan Carlos Navarro is without doubt one of the best players Spain has ever produced. His story has always fascinated me because he was definitely an NBA caliber player who chose to spend the majority of his career in Spain instead of the NBA. Juan Carlos was able to make the decision to remain in Spain because firstly his team (Barcelona) ran a fantastic program. Second, the Spanish National league was well run and attracted millions of fanatical fans which in turn created revenues and hence a very good living for the players. Third, the Euro League was extremely competitive and was routinely broadcast to a global audience. In short, Juan Carlos had options.

Mami Wata_Nicole Sweet

Photo: Nicole Sweet

Joel Embiid, Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka, Giannis Antetokounmpo and for that matter, Masai Ujiri (Toronto Raptors President) and Ime Udoka (New Boston Celtics Head Coach), all Africans, all plying their trade in the NBA, would not have had the same opportunities as Juan Carlos Navarro, if they had they chosen to stay in Africa.

But as the BAL grows into its second season, it is the hope of many that the league acts as an accelerant to the process of establishing all the elements for a successful, sustainable Pan-African basketball ecosystem that will one day see a future Joel Embiid come out of South Africa and then choose to remain and play in South Africa, in his prime, because the financial rewards for him doing so are there for all to see. He will compete against the best on the continent in front of a global audience in BAL games. 

It’s a vision that ends up where Nigeria’s Basketball team left off. Imagine the day when the BAL All Stars take on the NBA All Stars and come out on top. 

If Nigeria’s win against the USA is a taste of things to come, instead of a sporting anomaly, then we need to overcome the myriad local challenges and entrench a successful pan-African basketball league that will grow and sustain itself year after year. It is a challenge that will require effort, courage and self-belief from all those who love basketball in Africa. 

As Amadou Gallo Fall and Adam Silver have shown the way, it is now up to all of us to follow.

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