The N.B.A. Sees Its Future In Africa

The N.B.A. Sees Its Future in Africa

On an outdoor basketball court surrounded by seashell-scattered sand last month, a man coached a group of teenage girls through a drill. The staccato pounding of their dribbles alternated in the hot air with a tinnier sound in the distance: men hammering nails into wood while a bleating white billy goat looked on.

The coach, Abibou Sall, 34, instructed his players to dribble along the sideline, first with their left hands, then their right. Don’t look down at the ball, he told them, wanting the girls to learn to trust their hands.

N.B.A.

Sall is a physical trainer for the Pikine Basket Club, which practices at the Jacques Chirac Center. About 600 children play basketball at this recreational center in Pikine, a suburb bordering Dakar. The youngest players, ages 6 to 7, are introduced to the game on mini hoops. The oldest are 18. Sall is also a die-hard fan of the National Basketball Association.

It is a picture that would delight the N.B.A. — a devotee of its league teaching basketball to youngsters on a continent in which it sees tremendous economic opportunity.

Recently, after finishing with his club duties, Sall had been staying up late to watch the playoffs — the games often start after 11 p.m. local time — even after his favorite player, LeBron James, was eliminated in the first round.

The N.B.A. Sees Its Future in Africa

“I am passionate, I watch every game,” Sall said, playfully offended at the suggestion that he watched only James. “I never sleep,” he added jokingly.

The N.B.A. has been promoting basketball in Africa for more than 20 years, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the effort. The aim is to cultivate an immense potential fan base, the way it has in China, while also tapping into the rich talent pool on the continent. Much of the league’s work is concentrated in Senegal, where it operates an academy for high-school-age players, an N.B.A. Africa office and the headquarters of the Basketball Africa League. N.B.A. Africa’s investors include former N.B.A. players and former President Barack Obama (who also has an equity stake). The B.A.L. was announced in 2019 with FIBA, the sport’s international governing body. Its first season was in 2021.

Although N.B.A. Africa is not yet profitable, the investment seems to be producing results. Soccer may still be the king of sports on the continent, but basketball is becoming increasingly popular. People throughout Africa play on local club teams and in after-school programs. The N.B.A. has generated plenty of good will by building courts, libraries and homes; administering basketball camps and other development programs; and supporting gender equality. But some wonder about the league’s long-term commitment and whether the support needed for basketball to flourish can be sustained.

“As much as we are investing in Africa, the opportunity is so enormous I worry that we’re under investing,” Adam Silver, the N.B.A. commissioner, said in an interview. “There’s so much opportunity, but it’s not always easy to know how to deploy capital, which government you should be dealing with, who the honest brokers are. And so we’re learning as we go.”

The league’s — and Silver’s — connection to Africa goes back decades.

Silver, 62, spent a month in Malawi after college with a friend whose father led the United Nations’ mission there. Bill Russell, the Boston Celtics great, visited the continent on a State Department-sponsored trip in 1959. In 1993, David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner at the time, led a trip to South Africa, where league executives and players met with Nelson Mandela.

Today, about 10 percent of N.B.A. players are either African or have at least one parent from Africa. A vast majority of its players are African American.

The league is also conscious of population growth figures, which say that by 2050, one in four people on the planet will be African.

The league’s first African office opened in Johannesburg in 2010. Eleven years later, a second was opened in Dakar, followed by others in Lagos, Nigeria; Cairo; and Nairobi, Kenya. Investors and strategic partners like Obama were tapped in 2021 to help make N.B.A. Africa a stand-alone entity that operated its offices and the B.A.L.

Beyond money, the N.B.A. emphasized connection and expertise. Most investors in N.B.A. Africa and the B.A.L. either are African or have conducted business or humanitarian work in Africa.

Luol Deng, who played at Duke University and then spent 15 seasons in the N.B.A., was among the former players who invested. Deng, 39, was born in what is now South Sudan and fled with his family to Egypt as a child. He is the president of South Sudan’s basketball federation, which earned Africa’s automatic qualifying berth to this year’s Summer Olympics in Paris.

On a recent evening, Deng was in Dakar Arena, watching as the stands filled up with fans before a B.A.L. game.

“I went from being a refugee in Egypt, never seen a basketball game, to being in the N.B.A.,” he said. “So now imagine for these kids. This is in their backyard.”

With the B.A.L., the N.B.A. accomplished something it couldn’t do in China: help establish a league that it could operate. The 12 teams in the league play in three conferences, which include the six champions from leagues in Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia. Six teams earned their spots this year through a qualifying tournament. Seeding games were played in Pretoria, South Africa; Cairo; and Dakar, with eight teams advancing to the playoffs in Kigali, Rwanda.

Silver remembers meeting with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda and selling him on the positive economic impact that building a basketball arena could have on a city, citing examples from the United States in which arenas helped revitalize urban centers.

“President Kagame, he then, right in a meeting with us, made a decision to build a new arena,” Silver said. “And essentially a year later had a brand-new arena in Kigali, and Senegal followed and built a new arena.”

AS Douanes, a team from Dakar, was playing the night that Deng spoke about basketball in Africa. The team won on a buzzer beater in front of a nearly full arena. Fans roared, danced and banged Senegalese drums in celebration. The crowds were more sparse when the local team wasn’t playing.

When APR Rwanda, a team from Kigali, played earlier that day, a group of women blew horns behind the courtside seats. One of them, Denise Uwase, said that her country’s interest in basketball “grew after the genocide against Tutsi. Everyone wants to join because it’s a smart game. It’s a game that healed many people.”

Amadou Gallo Fall, the president of the B.A.L., hopes that the league can one day become one of the best in the world.

He’d also like to see it be profitable.

At the moment, it’s hard to know which goal is more challenging. There have been reports of teams not paying their coaches and players. Often, the teams with the financial resources to compete are tied to national governments, which creates other complications. A team from Burundi had to forfeit its games because it refused to wear jerseys with sponsorships from Visit Rwanda. On Instagram, players on the team said the government of Burundi had forbidden them to wear the jerseys.

As for attracting young fans — who may dream of playing in the N.B.A. — Deng thought back to his own childhood.

“When I was growing up and I was back on the continent, there’s no way I would make my mom pay $10 for me to come watch an N.B.A. game,” he said. “That’s a lot.”

He added: “We’re asking Africans and people that are struggling day to day to actually spend money to come watch this, which, in the Western world and Europe and so on, it works. But in Africa it’s not going to work.”

Deng would like to see sponsors buy tickets to the games and distribute them to local families. Perhaps they could even help with transportation to games, he said.

“These companies in Africa are making so much money,” he said. “For me, I always challenge all these companies in Africa, on the continent, what’s the impact for the work they’re doing?”

About 40 miles inland and east of Dakar, the coastal breeze disappears and gives way to a choking heat. Bougainvillea grow near the highway, like beautiful pink, orange and red flowering weeds, and goats loll around the vegetation and red sand.

This is Thies, one of the largest cities in Senegal and home to the SEED Project, a basketball center that Gallo Fall founded in 1998. Its logo is a baobab tree — also known as the tree of life — sprouting from half a basketball. Gorgui Dieng, a first-round N.B.A. draft pick in 2013, trained here before finishing high school in the United States.

“Most of our kids come from underprivileged backgrounds, and we bring them into the system and give them an education; you give them basketball skills for them to hone further in other countries like the U.S., Europe, Asia,” said Joseph Lopez, the president of the SEED Project.

He added: “After they get their degrees and their basketball experience, they come back to their home countries, where they become contributors to their systems and they create jobs.”

SEED, one of the numerous organizations whose interest in promoting basketball in Africa predate the N.B.A.’s push, opened its boys’ academy in 2002 and now also has a girls’ academy. It served as a blueprint for the N.B.A. Academy, which started in Thies before moving to Saly, a coastal town about an hour south of Dakar. In a nod to its roots, a SEED banner still hangs in the academy’s gym.

About two miles from SEED, a man rode a scooter into a teal-and-salmon-painted gym to drop off water for women participating in a camp for referees and coaches. It was 97 degrees outside and only slightly cooler inside.

Syra Sylla, a former sports journalist who is now a communications professional working to increase access to basketball in Senegal, especially for women and girls, organized the camp. She said it included 10 women from Senegal, eight from Morocco and two from Mauritania. A German governmental organization called GIZ funded the camp.

“In Morocco, it’s normal to be in sports if you’re a woman,” Sylla said. “In Senegal, it’s normal but not so normal. In Mauritania, it’s really rare. So the idea is also that they can see how it’s working in other countries, and sometimes they can see how privileged they are or how not privileged they are.”

Fatou Bintou Mangane, 19, used to hang around her brother’s basketball practices so often that finally a coach suggested she join.

“We’re taught to be leaders, having self-confidence, to be a role model,” she said. “Coming here, I thought they were only going to teach us about coaching, but it’s not the case.”

Khary Fall, 33, brought her 8-month-old son and his nanny to help care for him while she was at the camp. She started a center to promote basketball in Mauritania, and while some have told her that the sport takes away from her ability to care for her son and her home, her husband supports her involvement.

“I don’t have a problem with what people say,” Fall said through an interpreter. “The Federation of Basketball of Mauritania, the president, understands now that many women do sports, especially basketball.”

Sylla, 40, was born and raised in France, but visited Senegal regularly as a child and moved to the country five years ago.

She visits her family village of Gasse Doro, population 150, at least once a month. There is a simple basketball court there with rims attached to wooden backboards. Some children in the village do their homework under the lights on the court because they don’t have electricity at home, she said.

Sylla has “mixed feelings” about the N.B.A.’s work in Africa. She likes that its presence shines a light on the places it visits and makes children in those places feel valued. But she wishes the league would work more with the grass-roots groups spreading the game.

“When they leave, this is the organization who’s staying with the kids,” Sylla said. “And if the kids have frustrations or something, this is the organization who’s responsible. And the N.B.A. doesn’t know what is happening.”

Joel Embiid, who won the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2023, grew up in Cameroon and didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 15. The N.B.A. believes that if children play when they are younger, it will both give them a positive outlet and increase the probability that talented players develop into professionals, like Embiid.

“When we opened the N.B.A. Africa office in Johannesburg in 2010, we didn’t say, ‘Let’s launch a professional league.’ It was about making it accessible,” Gallo Fall said. He added, “We believe that when kids are exposed to basketball, if they have access, they’ll love it.”

The N.B.A.’s first official event on the continent was a Basketball Without Borders camp for teenagers in 2003. The league has since held Jr. N.B.A. programs for younger children in 19 African countries and opened its N.B.A. Academy in Senegal for elite high-school-age players from the continent.

The academy participants live on a campus they share with a soccer academy. They practice in a large gym that has two basketball courts and some workout equipment. In the summer, the air-conditioning unit doesn’t quite cool the whole space.

The players attend school, with both academic and practical lessons. Roland Houston, the technical director of the academy, said that one goal was to foster camaraderie among people from different African countries.

“I’ve made a lot of friends, brothers, these guys here in the academy,” said Khaman Maluach, a 7-foot-2 center who will go to Duke next year. “A lot of people from different places have created that bond that will last forever. It’s very special.”

Maluach was born in South Sudan, but grew up in Uganda. He played basketball in part because he became too tall for soccer.

Another academy player, Ulrich Chomche, has entered this year’s N.B.A. draft.

“We built that basketball gym on what used to be banana trees,” said Chris Ebersole, who leads international basketball development at the N.B.A. “To see that and have players go to Duke and the N.B.A. and G League Ignite, to see where it started to that, is really something.”

Silver said that it would be “a while” before the N.B.A.’s ventures in Africa were profitable, and that the league was behind on its projections, in part because the B.A.L.’s start was constrained by the coronavirus pandemic. But he said the league was achieving attendance and viewership goals.

“We’re more focused on top-line growth, on the amount of revenue we can generate, than profitability per se,” Silver said. “Because our plan for the foreseeable future is to continue to invest any revenue we generate back into the business there.”

And the N.B.A.’s footprint does seem to be growing in Africa.

Aziz Sy, 34, grew up in Dakar and runs a business incubator. He started following the N.B.A. as a child so that he could make conversation with the cool kids at school. He soon recognized the league as an example of an arena where Black people set a cultural agenda.

“Michael Jordan in the ’90s was such a huge phenomenon,” Sy said. “With him came the idea of a Black person basically on top of the world.”

Basketball turned into an obsession while he was living in Boston for college. But it was difficult to watch games when he moved back to Senegal. He watched the 2014 finals in a nightclub that agreed to put the game on television at 2 a.m.

Now, Sy has League Pass, which is available in almost every African country. For $75 a year, he can watch every N.B.A. game from home.

As Sy watches companies and foreign governments try to establish themselves in Africa, he worries that some of them, in their efforts to capitalize on the continent’s surging population, aren’t thinking enough about the challenges African people face. The N.B.A., in his mind, has been different.

“They’ve really come in and tried to understand the country, understand the people,” he said.

But considering the league’s altruistic aims could wait for another time. It was close to 1 a.m. in Dakar. The Minnesota Timberwolves were playing the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals. There was basketball to watch.

Ousmane Balde contributed reporting. Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.

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