We are witnessing an exciting turning point for African basketball. On July 10, 2021, Nigeria defeated team U.S.A. in an exhibition game, becoming the first African team to beat a U.S. national team. The victory came nine years after the United States crushed Nigeria by 83 at the Summer Olympics in London.

African hoopers are continuing to make huge waves in the best basketball leagues around the world, epitomized by Greek-Nigerian superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their first NBA championship since 1971. Capped by a 50-point masterpiece in Game 6 to close out the series, he became just the third Finals MVP to have a parent born in Africa, joining Hakeem Olajuwon and Andre Iguodala.

On July 27, former U.S. President Barack Obama joined NBA Africa as a strategic partner and minority owner where he will help promote social responsibility efforts like economic inclusion and gender equality. The latter piece of news should be particularly exciting for those who are closely following the emergence of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and what it could potentially mean for the continent.

What’s the BAL all about?

For those who may be unfamiliar, the BAL is Africa’s premier men’s basketball league. Birthed as a joint effort between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the operation of the league is overseen by NBA Africa, a business entity that is valued at nearly $1 billion. The BAL was initially set to debut on March 13, 2020, but the season was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, the BAL tipped off its inaugural season in May 2021, featuring 12 club teams from across the continent who competed in a tournament held entirely in Kigali, Rwanda. Zamalek SC, the club team from Cairo, Egypt, was crowned the winner of the first-ever BAL championship after defeating Tunisia’s US Monastir in a 76-63 battle.

The push to develop Africa’s talent pool

Spearheaded by Amadou Gallo Fall, President of the BAL, and Victor Williams, the CEO of NBA Africa, the BAL launch marks an important milestone in the decades-long effort to expand Africa’s basketball ecosystem and promote the values of sport.

To get a better understanding of Africa’s current player development initiatives, I spoke to Sami Al Uariachi, a young point guard on the Moroccan national basketball team who competed at the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers and AfroCan 2019.

Al Uariachi credits youth programs for providing opportunities for aspiring hoopers to flourish. He cites the Basketball Without Borders camp in South Africa as an experience that exposed him to world-class talent.

“Salah Mejri, who played on the Mavs, was one of the guys that took care of me. There’s [Carlos] Morais, an African legend from Angola who played for the Raptors at one point – he was also my coach at this camp.”

Al Uariachi expresses deep gratitude about his experience, though he acknowledges the need for more grassroots change to fully develop African potential before kids hit their mid-to-late teen years. “Basketball Without Borders is incredible, it’s a catalyst – Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam, some of the biggest names in basketball all went through the system. But to really succeed as a continent, we have to remove those structural barriers and actually give kids opportunities at a younger age.”

He believes that developing a pipeline would elevate the BAL to the next level without needing to resort to American talent. “You have a couple good domestic guys, like on the Egypt and Tunisia teams, but it’s really two or three standout American guys that come play for a six-month contract and leave. If you build up a system where you have players that are domestically grown and are willing to stay here, I think that would be the real game-changer.”

The BAL as a cultural unifier

On the flip side, the BAL’s current roster regulations, which permit each team to select two players from the BAL combine without them needing to be of African nationality, may operate as a vehicle for ancestral reconnection and cultural unity. I spoke with Usher Komugisha, the charismatic award-winning sports journalist from Uganda who commentated the BAL and conducted the medal ceremony, to gain some insight into why the BAL may possess this capacity.

“You have all these kids, they could be immigrants – just generally kids who were playing in college in the USA – and they’re always looking for an opportunity to come back home, not necessarily to live there, but to find the attachment. [The BAL] could be an engine, a pathway to reconnect. I was speaking to some of the black American players that were playing in the BAL, and they feel at home. For most of them, it was their first time visiting. Now that they’ve seen Rwanda, they may say ‘Ok, it is not what we see on television.’ There are beautiful places and the people are great. The BAL is powerful in that sense. And I think that it was a good story because even when I was commentating, I felt like it was an opportunity to debunk some of those things that people think about Africa.”

Komugisha also expanded on how the league intends to foster a pan-African sentiment and draw positive attention to the continent.

“The original idea of the BAL was to have a caravan. For example, these games would start in Dakar and then we would go to Salé in Morocco, and from there we go to Monastir, then Cairo, then Luanda in Angola, then you have maybe Maputo, then you come to Kigali. Hopefully, we can do this caravan next year in 2022, depending on the situation with the pandemic, but that would shine a light on the entire continent … sports in general help you see the world from a different point of view.”

What’s next for the BAL?

Even though the BAL is still in its infancy, its outlook appears incredibly promising. It will be fascinating to observe how the league’s level of competition will evolve, particularly as proposals to develop local talent multiply. Additionally, it’s worth keeping an eye on the cultural ecosystem surrounding the game when more celebrities and local fans will eventually be able to experience the league’s entertainment value. Equally, if not more, important, it’ll be interesting to see how the executives at NBA Africa will leverage their expertise to use basketball as a vector for individual and communal development, as well as one for job creation and diplomacy.

What is undeniable, however, is that the BAL’s debut is a transformative moment for African sports. As Komugisha articulates with exuberance, “Someone was telling me that when we look back, maybe six months down the road, that is when we will understand the amount of history that was made at the first-ever BAL.”

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