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Basketball Africa League: ‘A dream come true for all of us’

Dikembe Mutombo and the basketball world celebrate a new NBA league

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina – An emotional Dikembe Mutombo hugged NBA commissioner Adam Silver and, in his raspy voice, said: “You made my dreams come true.”

The realized dream was Silver announcing the arrival of the NBA-driven Basketball Africa League (BAL) in 2020. Silver, who described himself as a “tireless advocate for Africa,” made the announcement at NBA Africa’s annual luncheon during NBA All-Star Weekend on Saturday. It is the NBA’s first professional league outside of North America.

“It’s a big celebration. It is a dream come true for all of us,” Mutombo, a Democratic Republic of the Congo native and Basketball Hall of Famer, told The Undefeated. “I was fortunate enough to play this game and dreamed of something like this happening in the continent. Today, we see that. I don’t have to explain the importance of it to myself.

“I was the first player to ask commissioner Silver to come to Africa. We were trying to find a way to grow the game on the continent. Now, the commissioner made it happen with the league. No more just going and playing a [exhibition] game. This is great.”

A long list of notables was on hand for the special announcement, including NBA legend and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan; Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning; FIBA Africa executive director Alphonse Bilé; Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri; NBA vice president & managing director, NBA Africa Amadou Fall; CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer; Hornets forward Bismack Biyombo; Raptors forward OG Anunoby; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie; Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chairman Larry Tanenbaum; National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts; NBA deputy commissioner and CEO Mark Tatum; two-time WNBA All-Star Chiney Ogwumike; Hornets president and COO Fred Whitfield; and actor Chris Tucker.

Silver and Ujiri also said former President Barack Obama had influence on the arrival of the BAL and offered support, although it’s uncertain whether he will be involved going forward.

“We did this because players like Dikembe pointed to the opportunity that existed, not just in basketball, but the sports industry throughout the continent,” Silver told The Undefeated. “He and I have been there together at least four times since I’ve been commissioner. And through conversations with FIBA and local ministers of sport, we realize that there is enormous opportunity to continue to grow the game.

“There are a lot of young players in Africa who know about the success of Mutombo, but don’t understand how to pursue those opportunities. Dikembe was very fortunate to come to school in the United States and be at Georgetown and have the benefit of fantastic coaching and mentoring. Of course, many players in Africa would not know who to turn to. We know that by building this basketball infrastructure, it’s going to create generations of new Dikembe Mutombos. On top of that, it can become an economic engine for all of Africa.”

The BAL will initially include professional clubs from Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia. Teams will travel to one site at a time to compete in a set amount of games, a source said, during a season that will be nearly 45 games total beginning in January 2020 and culminating with a championship game in March.

The NBA has held 16 Basketball Without Borders (BWB) events in Africa and has also put on exhibition games in Johannesburg three of the past four offseasons, pitting countrymen against international players.

The NBA opened this season with 108 international players from a record-tying 42 countries and territories, including 12 African countries. More than 80 current and former NBA players are from Africa or have ties to the continent, including NBA All-Stars Joel Embiid, who is from Cameroon, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose parents are Nigerian.

The NBA also announced on Saturday a direct-to-consumer offering of NBA games for fans in Africa by the start of the 2019-20 NBA season.

“In the close future, we will be able to talk about a united Africa as well,” Biyombo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told The Undefeated. “Africa has always been a divided country where everybody wants to do their own thing. The next generation is now understanding how to work together. And then they need help growing the economy of Africa because now we are going to have diverse things growing around this game and BWB.

“This is important. This is something I wished I had growing up. The only way kids leave the country is to go abroad, not to go to another African country. Now, they see what is in other African countries and see what the other countries are facing. It’s a game changer.”

NBA agent Bill Duffy told The Undefeated last year that Africa will be the next frontier as far as top international basketball talent. In 2034, Africa is expected to have the world’s largest working-age population of 1.1 billion, according to We Forum, which also projects that Africa’s consumers will spend $2 trillion by 2025. The NBA added plans to join FIBA to “dedicate financial support and resources toward the continued development of Africa’s basketball ecosystem, including training for players, coaches and referees, and infrastructure investment.”

Ujiri believes the arrival of the Basketball Africa League will bring much more than basketball to Africa and described it as “a movement.”

“It’s going to create more jobs,” Ujiri said. “It’s going to create more opportunity for people. If you look at the NBA and how many jobs it creates and revenue and how it brings people together, we need that on the continent.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.