The launch of the Basketball Africa League (BAL), a continental showpiece that is Africa's first ever professional league was expected to be one of the highlights of 2020, but it was postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sponsored by the NBA among other partners, the competition will feature 12 top clubs from the continent and Rwanda will host the tournament and be represented by league champions Patriots.
Times Sport's Damas Sikubwabo sat down with the National Basketball Association (NBA) Vice President and also Head of BAL Amadou Gallo Fall who talked about the growth of basketball in Africa, the postponement of BAL and its importance to the continent.
Tell us about BAL, its origins and whose brain child it is?
The basketball Africa League is a Pan-African professional basketball league with 12 clubs from 12 countries. It is a partnership between the NBA and FIBA. For the first time the NBA is entering in this type of endeavor, launching a professional league outside of North America.
I think that speaks to the opportunity and tremendous potential growth of the sport of basketball in Africa and that is the reason why we opened our office in 2010, and I think all the work that we have been doing even before opening the office because we launched basketball Africa Camp in 2003 at the grassroots level.
Many of these countries have national leagues and the BAL is like a champions league model where champions from different countries qualify to participate in this unique league that is designed to really grow the entire ecosystem of basketball, to create an industry to use basketball as an economic growth engine.
And when I am here in Kigali looking at this arena where we are, you can just imagine, you know, all the business activities that could flow around having an infrastructure like this.
There are games going on right now, but you know, you see transportation companies activated; obviously it is Covid-19, so a lot of restrictions in terms of fan access but imagine if fans could be in the arena, you feel the arena, all the opportunities with catering, you know, obviously sponsorship, people working in security, and all kinds of opportunities. That is what we mean when we talk about positioning the BAL as an economic growth engine.
We have heard that the BAL2020 tournament has been postponed. What is the reason?
Our initial plan was really to play in 7 different countries. So, we were going to launch on March 13th in Dakar. As I said we have 12 teams, we divided the 12 teams in two conferences, and we were going to play a weekend tournament.
Like we were going to start in Dakar with 6 teams and then the following weekend we were going to take the other 6 teams to Monastir in Tunisia, and then the subsequent weekend we would go into Luanda, then to Lagos, Cairo, Rabat; and we would have completed the initial stage called the regular season and then the top 8 teams were going to qualify for the elite 8 that we were going to host here in Kigali end of May.
So obviously Covid-19 has forced us to change our plans and since we postponed in March, we were just monitoring the global situation with the pandemic and also how it evolved in Africa to try to figure out what is the best date to launch this historic league.
So as the pandemic kind of subsided, we were looking to launching the league before the end of 2020 with a modified format.
Rather than playing in 7 countries, we were going to just play in one location. So we were looking at coming to Kigali next month, to have all the 12 teams here just like similar to what is happening now with these qualifiers (Afrobasket), but obviously the situation for us has not evolved enough not to present any risk for us and this is why we are deciding to wait until 2021; and it really had nothing to do with the Covid-19 situation on the continent and especially in Rwanda.
The government of Rwanda, RBC (Rwanda Biomedical Center) and the Ministry of Health have done a fantastic job managing the pandemic.
But the issue was how do we get our immense logistics here in the country, because, you know, we were looking to put up a big show, something that really has never been done before.
We were extremely excited and our partners - the Rwandan government, RDB, the Ministry of Sports and FIBA were very ready, but we all collectively decided that let's wait to give ourselves a better chance for maximum success, to launch the league in a way that we think it really deserves to be launched.
When do you plan to announce new dates for the tournament and where it will take place?
So we are working with all our partners and stakeholders to look at what is the best next opportunity in terms of windows in 2021. What I can tell you is that it is going to be launched within the first semester of 2021, it means before June.
We will continue to work with all our teams and FIBA and our host country to decide on what that date is going to be and I hope that very soon it is a date that we are going to be able to announce. It will be announced well ahead of time and that is what we are working on.
Being here obviously gives me a chance to connect with FIBA and all the national teams that are here.
Most of the countries that are here, I believe, with the exception of maybe South Sudan, they have teams that will be playing in the BAL and I guess 40 percent of the players on these national teams will be playing for clubs in the BAL, so it is just super exciting to be in an arena and watching basketball for the first time in close to a year.
And just watching what is happening here in terms of the level of organization is very inspiring and gives me even more confidence for the opportunity we have in 2021 to do something special.
Earlier on, you had showcased that all the 12 teams will play in Kigali. Is this still the plan?
No, it is the same 12 teams that have qualified for this inaugural season that are going to also participate in the inaugural season launch. It is still our inaugural season that we are looking to launch. So, the 12 teams that qualified, they will be the same teams competing.
You started the BAL tournament with major focus on the men's category. Do you have any plans of doing the same for women?
Well, we always talk about women and talent, you know, at the NBA we have the WNBA that is over 20 years old where women showcase their world class athletes.
You get global superstars that are brand names like Maya Moore, Lisa Leslie; and from Africa: Chiney and Nneka Ogwumike from Nigeria... ... . These are ladies we work with who are a big part of our effort to grow the sport across the continent and you many have heard that the NBA has launched the NBA Academy Africa in 2016.
We have a girls' academy where we bring girls from multiple countries periodically throughout the course of the year for weeks of seminars and a camp, and a number of them actually have obtained college scholarships in the USA.
Since we opened the NBA Africa office in 2010 in Johannesburg, our main priority was to increase participation in the sport, and we cannot do that by ignoring more than half the population.
Basketball is a game that women play at an equally high level as men, and I know throughout my travel and involvement in basketball on the continent that the women's game is more popular in certain countries than the men. I remember Mozambique always had incredible teams, in Senegal our women's basketball team is iconic.
I was saying this a couple of months ago, I remember growing up, some of the names of some of those ladies that you listen to on the radio winning multiple championships then, and they were also students.
And this is something that always resonated with me, and for us it is an extra effort that we have to make, but it is just going to be a natural progression. Obviously we have to start somewhere - we are starting with the men's league but I have no doubt that we will be talking about the women's league for the BAL.
But for now let's get to the next step, toss the ball and have the inaugural season.