While the NBA tipped off its 75th season on Tuesday night, this season will not only focus on the growth of basketball in America, but also its burgeoning imprint in Africa.
Along with the celebration of its diamond jubilee, the league also plans to focus on the expansion of basketball in Africa, notably with a ranking of the league’s top 75 historical moments there, from the Houston Rockets drafting Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon with the No. 1 overall pick in 1984, making him the first African-born player selected with the top pick, to the debut in May of the Basketball Africa League, an NBA-sponsored professional league on the continent.
The league has made sizable progress in Africa since holding its first Basketball Without Borders camp in Johannesburg in 2003, illustrated by all 54 countries on the continent now having access to NBA games. There also was the creation of NBA Africa, led by CEO Victor Williams, to manage all of the league’s business ventures.
But the most visible byproduct of the NBA’s relationship with Africa has been the number of players from the continent, or with at least one parent who is, who have played in the league. More than 100 players of African origin have played in the NBA, with 50 currently on active rosters as of opening night, including 13 born in Africa.
Williams, who is based in the league’s Johannesburg office, spoke to about the 75th season celebration, the continued expansion into Africa and the immediate future of the BAL.
What is NBA Africa doing for the 75th anniversary of the league?
We on the continent are very excited about the 75th anniversary of the NBA. And one of the ways in which we’ve chosen to recognize that is to identify the 75 most significant moments of the NBA’s history in Africa. And so we’ve worked internally and with friends in [the NBA] to identify those 75 moments of the NBA’s history in Africa. And we’re going to start releasing those this week and continue doing so all throughout the season, all the way to the Finals. And so it would be a great opportunity for our fans to relive some of the most memorable moments, including occasions like keep Hakeem [Olajuwon] being drafted No. 1, Dikembe [Mutombo] being drafted, Nneka Ogwumike being drafted in the WNBA, and we’ll go through various events, ultimately culminating in the release of the top 10 moments.
You mentioned some of the major moments in the league’s history in Africa, but what are some of the lesser-known moments that are important to the NBA’s history?
I think sometimes people are unaware that the connection between the NBA and the continent is a long-standing one. So, people may be unaware, for example, that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson came to Africa [in 1971] to visit and to explore and learn about the continent. So that’s the moment that I don’t think a lot of people are aware of. David Stern, our late commissioner, met with Nelson Mandela in 1993 and gave him an NBA jacket. And it speaks to David’s foresight about the game growing internationally and wanting to build those kinds of alliances for the growth of the game internationally. We’ve been doing Basketball Without Borders since 2003. And people may not be aware, unless they follow the Africa side closely, that people like Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam came through programs like that.
There will also be an expansion of television broadcast rights on the continent?
We are really pleased with the momentum we’re seeing, and the interest amongst various broadcasters, for the ability to show NBA games. We’re pleased that at the moment we have coverage with some of the major paid-TV broadcasters, such as ESPN and Canal+, and with them and other partners we have all 54 countries on the continent being able to watch NBA games. Our goal is to broaden distribution by increasing the amount of free-to-air coverage as well. And so, we are working to expand coverage in key countries, such as South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.
There were less players of African origin that were drafted this year compared to 2020. Every year can’t be record-breaking, but how does NBA Africa view that drop-off?
We were very pleased with this last draft, and we see it as continued momentum in getting players from the continent, or with at least one parent from the continent, into the league. So not every year we’re going to have nine players drafted. Six [in 2021] we thought was a really good number and we’ll continue, we hope, to see more players drafted. I think the other thing that was interesting here was to see some of our young players get drafted relatively high. Looking where Jonathan Kuminga was drafted by a team like Golden State was really, really good to see, and we’re excited to see all of these players and how they progress in the league.
Now that we’ve seen the international rosters released, the fact that we have more than 50 players in the league who either are from Africa or have at least one parent from Africa is a sign of the continuing importance and significance of this group of players to the league. And as we continue to invest in the basketball ecosystem in Africa, with more expansion of our grassroots programs, and more academies and affiliated academies, we expect we’ll see that number grow over time. We’re building for the long term, we don’t get too focused on the year-over-year shifts.
With that said, Americans’ reluctance to get vaccinated is a major issue. But there’s some vaccine skepticism in sub-Saharan Africa as well, including of health care workers. How could a reluctance from players affect you all’s ability to expand in the continent, and your ability to get the Basketball Africa League second season started in the next couple of months?
I would say, on a macro view, that the most important factor in terms of the rollout of vaccines in Africa is about availability of the vaccines and then distribution once they become available. So, to us, that’s the big issue. And what we are finding is that, in general, for our population or the people who participate, say, for example, in our grassroots programs, that as they become eligible to get vaccinated and the vaccines become available, we think there’s tremendous interest in getting vaccinated. And we are going to really promote and encourage people to get vaccinated so that they can participate safely in our programs. For the BAL, our goal would be that everyone who participates in the BAL season two will have been vaccinated, and we are working and looking at measures that we can take to support that so that we can ensure that people actually get access to the vaccines.
But do you all have any concerns that a sizable amount of players wouldn’t want to get vaccinated and that might affect your ability to have complete teams for the second season?
Not right now. We’ve spoken to various stakeholders, including at the team level, that our goal is going to be that everyone who participates is vaccinated, and we haven’t heard pushback. I think everyone understands that we’d all love to play season two without being in a bubble. And I think everyone understands that the best and safest way to make that happen is for everyone to be vaccinated.
Qualifying rounds for the next season of the BAL start this week. Do you know when the second season will start?
I do know, but I can’t say.
Is there any scenario where you all would have to do a bubble in Rwanda or any other country, as you did in the first season?
Our goal is to create the conditions where we don’t have to do a bubble, with one of those conditions being about everyone being vaccinated. Another condition would be, when we play the season, we play in countries with relatively low incidents of COVID. So those are some of the considerations that we’re going through right now. Having said that, the virus is unpredictable. I don’t know where we’ll be next year — I could definitely tell you it’ll be in 2022 when we’re playing the BAL — I can’t say what the virus is going to look like in the countries in which we’re going to play. At the end of the day, we will do the best, and take the best medical advice, to ensure the health and safety of the participants. But for now, our goal is to not do a bubble.
One of the more noteworthy things that happened in the first season was American rapper J. Cole coming to play for the Rwanda Patriots for a few games. How would you rate Cole’s performance as a player, but then also what it did for the league as far as exposure?
My sense of him as a player was that he acquitted himself well when he was on the court, and I think his presence was obviously a big draw in terms of bringing attention to the league from people who know his music and know of his interest in basketball, but who might not have been following the Basketball Africa League closely. So once he was involved in playing, I think the number of people who became aware of the league and started to follow what was going on, grew meaningfully. So overall, it was a positive for us that he was there. Hopefully, he found it a positive too in terms of the basketball experience. My sense is he was really welcomed by the Patriots when he was with them. That was a highlight of the season.
Would you all like to have him back for another season?
Yeah. That’s up to him and the team. But I think we found it to be a positive last year. And we think it would be a positive next season.
That being said, a player from Morocco’s team, Terrell Stoglin, called the inclusion of Cole ‘disrespectful,’ and that, in Stoglin’s opinion, Cole was taking the spot of another player who wasn’t a famous American rapper. Would that sort of opinion from the players affect the future of people like J. Cole who want to play in the league in the future?
This is a decision for the teams. The teams have a certain number of, call it ‘non-local’ players that they can have on their roster. And, it’s a limited number because we want the majority of the players to be from Africa and be given the opportunity to play in the league. The teams go through a process of evaluating lots and lots and lots of non-local players for those limited spots. So if a team decides that they want to use a player, regardless of who that player is, that’s their right and their ability, as long as the player meets all the criteria. And clearly, they got a belief that that player is going to help them win and succeed.
Who are five African players you would consider integral to the success of the NBA and its relationship with the continent?
In no particular order, I start with Hakeem. Multiple champion, MVP, No. 1 draft pick, really inspired a whole nation and a continent, in terms of the game. Dikembe, obviously, as much for his presence on the court, but also for what he’s done off the court, and also his ongoing commitment as an ambassador of the game and continuing to forge a connection between Africa and the NBA. For these purposes, I’m going to claim Giannis [Antetokounmpo], as someone who has won multiple MVPs, now has won a championship. And someone who in some ways embodies the African story, which is about roots in the continent, but being in the diaspora as well, but then going on to find and make a name for himself and yet another different country.
Manute Bol. It’s really the story. When you look at Manute and where he came from, Sudan, it’s a remarkable story in terms of how he comes from that environment and eventually makes it to the NBA and is able to find a way to use his skills to fashion a career in the NBA. For me, it’s not just about the player and what he does on the court, it’s also the story of the player. And then, in today’s world, I’m also gonna say Joel Embiid, as a dominant big man in the league and someone who I think still has a great future ahead of him as a leader of a team, as well as an individual.