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Businessweek

The NBA Turns to Africa to Fuel Basketball’s Next Era of Growth

June 23 promises to be the buzziest day of the year for professional basketball, as fans huddle around their screens or crowd into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the NBA draft, when the 30 American and Canadian teams claim the top amateurs coming into the league. For decades the primary source of talent has been US colleges, but in recent years teams have increasingly been looking abroad, hoping to find the next Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), or Serge Ibaka (Congo). A former NCAA player hasn’t won an MVP award since 2018. With that in mind, the NBA has been trying to expand its overseas reach, and nowhere has it been more ambitious than in Africa, where it’s started an entirely new league. This spring, 12 teams from as many countries battled it out for the championship of the Basketball Africa League, the new centerpiece of the NBA’s international ambitions.

The BAL is a joint venture between the National Basketball Association and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the sport’s global governing body. Last year’s inaugural season was crammed into two weeks because of Covid‑19 concerns. This time around, the dozen squads played 38 games at freshly built arenas in three countries, from March through May. Games aired on NBA TV and a range of broadcast partners, such as ESPN, Canada’s TSN, and China’s Tencent Sports, reaching more than 200 countries in 14 languages.

One early game, between Senegal’s Dakar Université Club Basketball and Tunisia’s Union Sportive Monastirienne, the eventual league champion, made it clear how far the BAL has already come. By the final minutes there was little question that Dakar, the home team, would come up short. And yet the raucous crowd remained rapt, sending a roar through Dakar Arena as DUC star C.B. Diallo blew by the Tunisian guards to score a meaningless basket. While the shooting guard dribbled down the sideline past ads for Wilson sports gear and Hennessy cognac, his courtside audience included Instagram influencers, investors, bankers, diplomats, NBA officials, and scouts from the US and Europe. Win or lose, Diallo and his teammates were on the global stage, playing in a competition sanctioned by basketball’s superlative and most lucrative league. “All the ingredients are already there,” says BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall, who was also sitting on the sideline. “All we need to do is to bottle it up.”

Fall, who’s 58 and Senegalese, has been in basketball for longer than any BAL player has been alive, first as a journeyman NCAA player and later as an NBA scout. He’s spent a decade making deals with African governments to enhance the sport’s presence on the continent, building courts and setting up training and coaching programs. He’s betting that he can turn basketball into the continent’s second-favorite pastime after soccer and that an NBA-backed pan-African pro league can provide the NBA with a valuable talent pipeline and a billion potential new viewers.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver needs it to work. His league sank more than a decade into similar development efforts in China to boost the sport’s profile in search of more fans, but it continues to face blowback from an incident in 2019 when Daryl Morey, at the time an executive with the Houston Rockets, voiced support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. (The nerve!) Chinese state TV didn’t air last year’s NBA Finals, and Silver estimated in 2020 that the league’s $5 billion China subsidiary could lose $400 million from scuttled deals. He said in June that the CCTV blackout cost the league “hundreds of millions” of dollars in revenue. “Others since then have spoken out about their views around China and other places in the world, and if the consequences are that we’re taken off the air or we lose money, we accept that.”

The NBA wouldn’t say exactly how much money it’s put into its Africa venture, which was most recently valued at $1 billion after attracting millions in investment capital. The retired NBA stars who’ve invested include Congolese Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo and South Sudanese All-Star Luol Deng, as well as Grant Hill, Junior Bridgeman, and Joakim Noah. The highest-profile investment so far has come from Barack Obama, who became a minority owner last year. “I really believe that what the NBA is doing in Africa will make a substantial difference, beyond just getting more people involved in the game,” Obama said at a league summit in February. “In Africa, basketball also has the power to promote opportunity and wellness and equality across the continent.”

Fall has been dubbed the godfather of African basketball, but he was still a kid in 1971, when the US Department of State sent Milwaukee Bucks stars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson on a three-week outreach trip to Algeria, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, and what is now Somalia. They played in exhibition games with locals and met with politicians to play the role of America’s cultural diplomats. “For me, this is a return to the fountainhead,” Abdul-Jabbar, who’s of Yoruba descent and studied African history in college, said at the time.

African basketball fans got a pair of NBA idols in the 1980s. First was Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, a two-time champion center from Nigeria; a few years later came Mutombo, who became one of the fiercest defenders ever to protect the paint. But both Hall of Famers’ stories underscored the lack of a clear path from their home countries to the court. The University of Houston stumbled on Olajuwon when a friend of a friend recommended him to the team’s coach, while Mutombo made it to Georgetown University on a scholarship from the US Agency for International Development. Looking back, Mutombo says his career was only possible thanks to his Georgetown coach, the late John Thompson. “No one else seemed to believe that this kid from Congo would have the ability and talent to get where I got.”

Fall had a similar entry point. He grew up in Kaolack, a central Senegalese river port town best known for its peanut trade. He played high school ball in Dakar, before meeting a Sports America consultant in Tunisia who helped him get a scholarship to the University of the District of Columbia, a Division II school. A broken wrist ended Fall’s senior season, but by then he already knew he wasn’t a pro prospect. He went to work for the Dallas Mavericks, traveling the world to scope out players, and by 2010 he’d become part of the NBA’s first office in Africa after admiring the influence that players from the continent were having in the US. “I see the network they’re developing and how they’re putting their countries’ names on the map in America, playing on ESPN, with Dick Vitale calling their name and calling the name of their hometowns,” he says.

That first Africa office was at Johannesburg’s Nelson Mandela Square. Back then, much of the NBA’s work there was done through Basketball Without Borders, an instructional camp held in conjunction with FIBA, while teams would send coaches and scouts to the various national leagues and tournaments held across the continent. In 2014, about six months into his job, Silver had dinner with a group of executives that included Fall, FIBA Executive Director Alphonse Bilé, and Masai Ujiri, now president of the Toronto Raptors. The commissioner walked away convinced it was in the NBA’s interest to take a direct role in building a showcase for African talent, Fall says. Ujiri, who grew up in Nigeria, would turn the Raptors into a championship franchise with global reach through aggressive international recruiting.

As Fall was getting the infrastructure built, a new generation of stars was thriving in the NBA and drawing trans-Atlantic attention. Pascal Siakam, a 6-foot-8-inch defensive menace from Cameroon, was developing into an All-Star talent for Ujiri’s Raptors. Meanwhile, players, coaches, and fans alike watched in awe as Cameroonian Joel Embiid transformed from a highly touted prospect to an MVP candidate as a dominant center for the Philadelphia 76ers.

By the end of 2019, Fall was ready. The BAL scheduled its first-ever games for March 2020. Bad timing. Season canceled.

With the NBA’s guidance, in 2021 the BAL tried to replicate its US counterpart’s “bubble,” enforcing strict quarantine protocols for players, coaches, and staff. The two-week inaugural season took place in Kigali, where the Rwandan government had worked with a contractor to build a $104 million, 10,000-person sports complex. Egyptian squad Zamalek SC, led by Puerto Rico-born guard Walter Hodge, won a spirited championship game, but the logistical limitations left Fall feeling as though the inaugural season had failed to achieve the desired pan-African appeal. The 2022 season, he vowed, would be so grand it would span the continent, from the Mediterranean to Cape Town.

To succeed, the BAL must stand out on its own as an attraction inside and outside Africa. Team rosters to date have included a mix of local players and veterans from international basketball circuits, but many of the best African players have already been snapped up by NBA or EuroLeague franchises. Liz Mills, the Australian coach who led the Moroccan champions, AS Salé, says increased competition is yielding a dramatic upswing in recruiting from outside Africa, but each team is limited to two non-Africans. One of her players is Terrell Stoglin, a 30-year-old American who played at the University of Maryland but went undrafted by NBA teams in 2012. Last year, Stoglin became the first BAL player to score 40 points in a game. This season he bested that mark with a 41-point performance. “The level’s higher this year,” he says. “The stakes are higher, too. You see that the teams have invested more.”

The BAL is looking for wunderkinds as well as late bloomers. Among the NBA’s rising stars are 19-year-old Congolese wing Jonathan Kuminga, who just won a championship ring playing for the Golden State Warriors, and Precious Achiuwa, the Toronto Raptors’ 22-year-old Nigerian big man. Each played basketball at a US high school, which provided a much clearer career path than the options at home.

At this year’s 10-day tipoff in Senegal, the country’s basketball ambitions were immediately evident. More than 20,000 fans came out to watch at Dakar Arena, which rises above a landscape of half-finished construction sites on the outskirts of the seaside capital. Some fans arrived from the city’s downtown business district on an express train, which opened shortly before the season began. The games had the fervor of an international football match—crowds waving flags, chanting, a couple of dozen supporters furiously drumming.

The BAL season is structured in three parts, with the two conferences playing in separate locations in March and April to qualify for the playoffs in May. The second set of games were played before similar audiences in Cairo, at the Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall, which was named after a handball executive. Built in 2020 in 6th of October City, a modern satellite town in the desert a half-hour drive from the Pyramids of Giza, it’s surrounded by midrise apartment buildings, four shopping malls, and the local headquarters of Vodafone Group Plc, the British telecom giant. The spotlight here was on Zamalek, Egypt’s top basketball team and the reigning BAL champs. The home favorites cruised through undefeated, led by Egyptian center Anas Mahmoud and Dominican-American forward Edgar Sosa, both of whom once played college ball at Louisville.

Zamalek didn’t fare as well in the BAL playoffs this time, which took place a month later in Kigali, and had to settle for third. That left Tunisia’s Monastir to face off against Angola’s Petro de Luanda. The game was tied late into the third quarter, with two of Monastir’s key players sitting on the bench for long stretches because of foul trouble, until the season’s MVP, Michael Dixon—a Georgian national who played in the NCAA with Missouri and Memphis—took over and gave them the lead with a big three-pointer. The Tunisian squad never looked back, winning 83-72.

A near capacity crowd filled the stands to see the final, even though the local Rwandan team had already been eliminated. The 10,000-seat BK Arena, which has a six-year, almost $7 million sponsorship deal with the publicly traded Bank of Kigali, sits in the city’s Remera neighborhood close to the airport and along the highway. Once known for being a rough neighborhood, the area has undergone a staggering transformation into a land of crowded sports bars and bustling restaurants. “That’s the kind of economic development we want to spur,” Fall says. He sees this as a key part of the value proposition for local governments.

The NBA now has an office in Lagos and wants to open one this year in Cairo, likely followed by Nairobi, though plans aren’t yet confirmed. Retail stores are coming, too, to sell apparel and footwear, starting in South Africa. The league’s bosses say they’ve identified seven African markets as their most crucial, with a combined gross domestic product totaling more than $1.5 trillion: Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa. “You can’t wrap your arms around all 54 countries,” says Victor Williams, a former banker from Sierra Leone who’s overseeing the NBA’s expansion on the continent. And you can’t tap into any of them without boosting viewership and creating new fans. No one’s buying basketball merchandise if they don’t care about basketball.

That also means fostering the next crop of African-born stars. Each BAL team has one roster spot reserved for a player from the NBA Academy, its global player-development program. Its year-round location in Senegal is meant to make the path to the pros more distinct for the hopeful teens who make up the student body. They’re the select few plucked by scouts and chosen through invitation-only tryouts. The NBA has three more academies scattered around the world, in Australia, India, and Mexico.

On the Tunisian team it’s Charles Onana Awana, an 18-year-old student at the Senegal academy. He grew up practicing layups on rusty rims at a cracked concrete court in Douala, Cameroon. The academy has two indoor courts with floors so meticulously maintained that visitors are instructed to walk around them and not across. Awana was spotted playing for his local club. Like many of the other players at the academy, he arrived with raw potential, but only a vague idea of what it takes to make it as a pro in Africa or anywhere else.

The 6-foot-7 guard is counting on his performance on the BAL court to be noticed. Maybe he’ll catch the eye of one of the scouts in the front row. He nailed two threes in his limited playing time off the bench on Monastir’s title run. “I’m lucky to be here,” he says. “It’s a chance to be discovered.”

©2022 Bloomberg L.P.