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NBA confident in challenge to gain hoops traction in Africa

NBA Africa Game 2015 aims to bring more exposure to the game

POSTED: Jul 31, 2015 11:09 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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The goal of Amadou Fall, the NBA's vice president of development in Africa, is to make the game more accessible.

— The indoor arena where the NBA will stage a historic event, an organized game for the first time on African soil (Aug. 1 at 9 a.m. ET on ESPN), holds 5,000. The players in this game played in college gyms three times larger. Right next door is a stadium that gets 50,000 for rugby and was used for the 2010 World Cup.

Now you see what the NBA and the effort to build better basketball in Africa is up against.

There are rather cumbersome infrastructure issues throughout Africa, mainly with facilities. There's little incentive to construct big and shiny new gyms, not for countries that struggle with funding. Even if such money were available, soccer and cricket would cut in front of the line.

Also, for all its steady growth on the continent over the last few decades, basketball hasn't produced an African powerhouse on the international scene. Not a single African country has ever medaled in the Olympics or World Championships, or even come close. Only Angola, Nigeria and Senegal consistently make the FIBA world rankings. Angola (No. 16) is the only African country in the top 20, and for comparison's sake, Mexico, not exactly a hoops pipeline, is ahead of Nigeria, home to the great Hakeem Olajuwon. Mexico?

Which raises an important point: As a continent, Africa produces a fair number of good players, and some make a living in the NBA. But it is splintered off into many countries and therefore the basketball talent is spread too thin to create, for example, another Croatia.

Therefore, what's the incentive for the NBA to spend time and resources on a continent where the hurdles are high and the interest, compared to other sports here, is low? Well, that's easy. If Africa ever warms up to basketball, and that's slowly happening, basketball will win big. And when basketball wins, the NBA wins. Call it an investment into the future.

But man, those hurdles ...

"We have to build leagues, we have to get coaches, we have to train coaches, we have to build programs," said Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, who is Nigerian-born and has stayed active in the cause for two decades. "It just doesn't happen overnight."

African interest in basketball is growing

The power brokers in basketball are undaunted. The alliance of FIBA and the NBA and sponsors such as Nike are forging ahead and they keep coming back. There's just too much to gain, they feel, and too many people -- just over a billion, actually -- for Africa not to create good and great players. Again, this isn't a continent the size of Australia. This is Africa. This is a billion. Even with shaky infrastructure, those are delicious odds.

For 13 years now, Basketball Without Borders, the offspring of the NBA and FIBA, has infiltrated Africa and you must admire its teeth-gritting persistence. This group goes straight for the grassroots and tries to hook the kids. Outdoor courts are built, clinics are held and elite camps are staged. The organizations for soccer and cricket don't have to work this hard. Basketball does, and is.

The NBA put an office in Johannesburg and five years ago created the role of vice president of development. The NBA is evidently serious. And so is Amadou Fall, a former standout player for Senegal who left his front-office position with the Mavericks in about five seconds to take the job.

Trey Burke
Basketball Without Borders has been key in helping to grow the game in Africa.

He is connected and sharp and always impeccably dressed in a suit that screams Wall Street, which is where he could be working, among other places. But his heart belongs to basketball and to African kids and so it was a natural match. He is a boots-on-the-ground guy who is relentless in raising basketball awareness throughout the continent, or simply helping Africans look for a way out through basketball.

"The interest is there among young people in Africa," Fall said. "It's not like you have to sell the game. For the most part, young people here are attracted to American pop culture. They want to like what American kids like and basketball is a part of that. Teenagers across the world have the same interests. They follow the same trends, which are set on a global basis."

Meaning: LeBron moves the needle everywhere, not just in the U.S.

"Our goal is realistic," he said. "Most of the young people we bring into our camps are not going to play basketball for a living. We just want to ensure that those who do have passion are going to have the chance to showcase their talent. Our goal is to make the game accessible. We want to give them a clear path."

Lots to gain from NBA Africa Game

It starts in small steps, and one was taken when Fall approached NBA commissioner Adam Silver two years ago about staging an NBA game in Africa, saying, "It's time." Who knows, the exposure of the Saturday event could capture the imagination of someone who may one day give Africa basketball what it desperately needs -- a transcendent superstar.

Seriously, how much easier would the effort be if Africa produced an MVP candidate, one who played above the rim and had a Madison Avenue-friendly personality to boot? Someone with 10 million Twitter followers and had his NBA team constantly in the hunt for championships?

Some of those infrastructure hurdles would be sawed in half, that's what would happen.

"Winning is what you want," Ujiri said. "Winning influences, it helps, it gets the kids. Winning makes an impact. A player from Africa who wins championships? That's powerful. We had that with Hakeem but I felt he came in an era before social media. Some of our kids don't know the impact he had."

Something is going to break through at some point. The same thing happened in soccer. ...Soccer grew. Players got better. Basketball is going to be the same way, in time.

– Masai Ujiri, Raptors general manager

It's now fairly common to see African surnames on the back of NBA jerseys. That's no longer a novelty. There are 10 African-born players on NBA rosters and 13 others with African blood who are from other countries. Most are very functional players, some are borderline stars, and a few could become known to the basketball world on a one-name basis (Antetokounmpo?).

Serge Ibaka from the Congo is an important part of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who could play for a title next summer. Luol Deng (South Sudan) has been a consistently solid player for almost 10 years now. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece) is up and coming and Nicolas Batum (France) is respected; both were born to an African parent.

But that's the thing: None are LeBron or Durant or 'Brow or Kobe, who sell tickets and hike ratings. Since Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo retired, we haven't seen one of those types, at least not yet.

Most Africans get better by leaving the continent. They migrate to Europe or the U.S. at a young age and get the benefit of advanced training, coaching, competition and being exposed to role models. It's hard to imagine Africa matching those advantages enjoyed by other places. The junior-level ball in the world's basketball hotbed countries, for example, is light years ahead of even the best African countries. Kids in Europe are groomed at sports academies and turn pro when they're 16.

In a dream scenario, the exposure from the NBA will encourage African kids to embrace basketball the way Latin American kids embraced baseball decades ago. Boys in the Caribbean are turning the double play flawlessly before they reach 10. And when places like Puerto Rico started gushing talent, Major League Baseball built academies there and the game has benefitted financially and otherwise because of the constant influx of Caribbean players, who fill the All-Star rosters and are taken for granted. The passion for baseball among kids in those countries, many of them poor and dealing with infrastructure issues like the African countries, has negated all barriers.

So the steps are: Grow the fan base, hook the kids, build the gyms, supply the basketballs, remove the obstacles and hope that out of a billion people in Africa, several million will become addicted and three or four needle-in-the-haystack players will one day become idolized throughout the basketball world.

"Something is going to break through at some point," Ujiri said. "The same thing happened in soccer. In soccer we only had one country going to the World Cup, now it's five and countries are reaching the semifinals. Soccer grew. Players got better. Basketball is going to be the same way, in time."

The Ellis Park Arena, site of Saturday's NBA exhibition, reflects the state of African basketball. This building lacks modern amenities, is old and dusty and seats only 5,000.

But the game sold out in 19 minutes.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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