Inaugural season of the Basketball Africa League shows NBA’s commitment to growing the game on the continent

CHICAGO — Amadou Gallo Fall knows that when the Basketball Africa League tips off on March 13 in Dakar, Senegal, former NBA commissioner David Stern, who died in January from a brain hemorrhage, will be smiling down on them. As the President of the BAL, Fall announced the 12 teams who would be competing in the inaugural season to a crowd of about 100 people inside the Grand Ballroom of the Hyatt Regency hotel during NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. It wasn’t just a celebration of the BAL, it was also celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the NBA opening an office in Africa, which was spearheaded by Stern. 

During the luncheon, videos were shown celebrating the various milestones that the NBA has made across Africa, with clips of Stern talking about why it was important for the league to open an office on the continent. The international platform that the NBA has is in large part due to Stern’s work of expanding the reach of the league, to ensure that the game of basketball could be enjoyed and experienced by as many people as possible, not just those inside the United States.

“He got us here,” Fall said. “When I first started, it was David who hired me to head up NBA International. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit for first of all going to Africa in 1993, and meeting with President [Nelson] Mandela, and he also went back the following year for President Mandela’s inauguration. He shared his passion for the opportunity to use the celebrity of the NBA brand to inspire young people and build communities. I know that wherever he is he’s smiling because we now have a professional league powered by the NBA in partnership with FIBA, something that’s never been done before happening in Africa and it’s because he believed in the market.”

The Basketball Africa League was announced last year during All-Star festivities, and the creation of the league is a massive show of support from the NBA as it continues to push Stern’s vision for the game forward. While the NBA has had African players in the league in the past, with Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo putting the continent on the map, recently there’s been a steady increase in the number of African-born players entering the league.

On the opening day of this season, there were 11 players from African countries on NBA rosters, and nine African-born players were selected in last year’s draft. Through programs like Basketball Without Borders and Jr. NBA initiatives, the NBA has uncovered tremendous talents like the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors.

However, unlike previous NBA initiatives that have helped grow and develop talent in other parts in the world with the goal of reaching the NBA in mind, the BAL will allow those talented kids growing up in various countries in Africa to dream about playing at the professional level in their home country. 

“This was a missing link on the continent, because you can’t have a place where the only way to have young talent to grow and develop is by leaving their country and moving somewhere else,” Fall said. “Now the talent is going to stay in the environment, and really be part of the community and become heroes that could inspire young people off the court.”

It’s about more than just basketball, though. Fall routinely mentions the phrase “economic engine” when talking about the potential of the BAL in Africa. The opportunities it could provide extends far beyond just playing basketball at the professional level. It has the potential to lift up entire communities and create jobs in coaching, marketing, sports training, broadcasting and front-office positions. 

Fall uses Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, who grew up in Nigeria, as an example to show the younger generation that you can still be involved in the game beyond just playing. Ujiri is responsible for building the Raptors team that won the NBA championship last season, and won Executive of the Year in 2013. He’s also made a point to provide young African players opportunities within basketball, and is routinely involved in NBA Africa to help grow the game on the continent. The Basketball Africa League is just one small part of an entire ecosystem the NBA and FIBA are trying to build in Africa, and it can be used as leverage to open more doors and provide more opportunities for the next generation.

“It’s incredible for Africa and it’s definitely the next step,” Siakam said. “It’s something that we as a continent should be proud of, and it shows that the world is recognizing our talent. That league I think is going to be a big thing for us, and we have to continue to bring our awareness to the game and pay it forward.”

Over the past 10 years, the NBA has helped grow the game of basketball in Africa by holding camps, building basketball courts and community centers and bringing the game to communities that previously didn’t have the resources or tools to access it. It’s helped kids like Siakam and Embiid get their foot in the door to be put on the path to become NBA stars. With the BAL, it serves as a symbol that the biggest basketball league in the world recognizes the amount of untapped talent on the continent of Africa. This isn’t meant to be a developmental league for the NBA or leagues in Europe. Instead, it will provide players a platform they previously didn’t have with the support of the NBA. 

The league is starting with 12 teams, and though Fall says there was enough interest to field a 30-team league, the BAL doesn’t want to skip steps.

“We are strategic, deliberate and using the NBA’s world class best practices to build a property that is going to be incredible for fans of all ages to enjoy,” Fall said. “We want to inspire young boys and girls to want to get more involved and think about a career in the sport, but especially to our commitment to making sure that young people who play the game take the education of it very seriously. [We want to] create local heroes, and get these teams engrained in the consciousness of the fans to build communities around these teams.”

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