Johannesburg — Twenty-six games, writing a major chapter of African sports history. That's the narrative of the inaugural season of the new Basketball Africa League, an offshoot of the U.S. National Basketball Association.
The action tips off Sunday, in Rwanda's capital.
Basketball is not currently the continent's favorite sport. That trophy goes to the mighty soccer, or football, as it's more commonly known.
But the hardwood game has risen in popularity since it was introduced widely on the continent in the 1960s, siring African stars who hit American courts running, like NBA legends Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, Dikembe Mutombo of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Luol Deng of South Sudan.
The 12 BAL teams are culled from the best clubs -- many of them police and army teams -- across the continent. They include West African teams from Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal, southern heavyweights Angola and Mozambique and the might of the Maghreb in the form of teams from Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. And, bringing a bit of musical flash and street cred to the new league: rapper J. Cole has signed on to the Rwandan team, the Patriots BC, according to local media reports.
Refiloe Seiboko is a sports journalist based in Johannesburg. And although her home team, South Africa, didn't qualify for this tournament, that won't keep her from watching.
"I am really, really excited about it. It's been a long time coming," she said "... I think it's a real moment of excitement for a lot of people on the continent, for a lot of basketball fans and basketball players, people who are employed by the sport, it's a big moment. It really, really is. I can't downplay how much it means for African basketball in the past and going into the future."
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Seiboko declined to bet on a winner, but said viewers can expect a great show.
"If anybody watches African players they're often touted for their energy and their high motors," she said. "And so people can definitely expect a lot of energy, a lot of athleticism from the guys. They've been training for this and ready for this for a long time."VOA caught up with BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall in Johannesburg before the first game. He said the decision to give Africa its own league was pretty obvious.
"We have no doubt, and everybody recognizes, the tremendous amount of talent that the continent has," he said. "You know, players from Africa have been having major impact, not only in the NBA but also in the NCAA. And today, I mean, these days, we had the March Madness, the annual college basketball tournament taking place with many African players in multiple elite college rosters. So you know the talent has always been there."
Keeping the talent close to home
And, Seiboko said, this is a great way to show off Africa's excellence - and keep it on home soil.
"It's so incredibly important to have a league of Africans on the African continent," she said. "For so many levels, we have the talent, number one: if we have the talent, let's do it. Let's get these guys the opportunities to play at home on their continent and not have to feel like they have to go outside of the continent to Europe or to the States to be successful. I think this is such an important step. And just like, teaching the young people who are going to be watching them that, you know, you don't have to leave home to go and make a success of yourself as an athlete."
So will this starting season reveal Africa's streaky shooters? Or a torrent of threes, free-throw sprees, dunks to die for, or nothing but net? Spectators will have to see - or hear - for themselves.
VOA radio will simulcast the games in English and French and give play-by-play coverage in Bambara, Kinyarwanda, Wolof, and Portuguese for some games.
The action starts Sunday, when Rwanda's Patriots Basketball Club takes on Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers at the Kigali Arena in Kigali, Rwanda.