The US National Basketball Association (NBA) marked ten years on Monday since opening its first office in Johannesburg. In the last decade, the NBA has established a grassroots training programme to harness African talent and now its goal is for players to aspire to play at home.
“Sports is traditionally seen on the continent as an activity and not really as an endeavor that has an ecosystem around it,” explains John Manyo-Plange, head of the NBA’s operations in Africa.
“It’s not just about what happens on the court or the field, but there’s a multi-billion dollar business around the sports and entertainment field. And we feel this is an underdeveloped area that the African continent hasn’t taken advantage of,” he told RFI, during a conference at the end of January on the launch of the Basketball Africa League.
Twelve teams from across the continent will be featured in the league’s inaugural season, and the matches will be played in seven host cities during a three-month period.
The 12-team circuit is part of the NBA’s ongoing efforts to increase its influence on the continent, where it has been running a grassroots program and youth training facilities for the past decade.
In 2017, it opened an elite basketball academy in Senegal to showcase African talent for US teams and colleges.
Fifteen-year old Dick Rutatika Sano from Rwanda, was one of 12 youths selected for the academy.
“Basketball has opened a lot of opportunities for me,” he says.
“My most memorable experience was the junior global championship back in 2018. Because not only did I get the opportunity to meet new people, but I also got to represent my family, my country and my continent,” he told RFI.
The 2-metre-tall power forward, who has consistently featured in youth and junior African basketball championships, now wants to give back.
“I’m really inspired by NBA players such as LeBron James in terms of giving back to the community. And I would really like to do the same thing: inspire people both on and off the court.”
Sports and development
Getting to the level of a top-flight professional basketball league in Africa that can inspire more young boys and girls to play the game will require investment.
The NBA already has the support of the International Basketball Federation, and at the end of last month it received a five million investment from the French Development Bank (AFD).
“It’s not about selling T-shirts or basketballs. It’s really about investing in the human capital in Africa,” comments Rémy Rioux, Executive Officer of the AFD, which for the first time is investing in a major sports institution.
“We want to be at the start, at the frontier of this new field, between sports and development,” he told RFI, insisting basketball can be a catalyst for Africa’s growth.
“It’s about creativity, startups, fashion, youth. President Emmanuel Macron was very attentive to that, how will it change the way we look at Africa?”
Players at home
Despite the hype and infusion of cash, not everyone is convinced.
“Personally, I think we have to keep developing and building basketball courts,” reckons Jean-Eric Sendé, a basketball coach from Cameroon, who runs an African basketball association for young players in France.
“Yes, the French Development Agency is a very important donor, but what happens next? Will we continue scouting African players only to send them to clubs in the United States or elsewhere?” he told RFI.
Manyo-Plange, the NBA’s operations chief in Africa, says that won’t happen.
“We have to make sure that success can be defined by staying on the continent, and being able to develop basketball and education on the African continent as opposed to being plucked out,” he said.
Made in Africa
Many African players however have been plucked out, including Cameroon’s Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks, born in Greece to Nigerian parents. Both are contenders to become the NBA’s most valuable player.
The NBA’s goal now is to urge players to aspire to play at home.
“By building something that is world-class on the African continent,” the NBA wants to enforce the idea that “made in Africa is a signal for something of high quality,” Manyo-Plange said.