The sun-baked down on the newly constructed court and grandstands in Phokeng just outside Rustenburg in the capital of the platinum rich Royal Bafokeng Nation in the North West Province of South Africa.
The more than 10,000 young fans packed the stands and cheered on the players on the court. This place is hot at this time of year and the heat hadn’t relented this year either, but the spirits remained high.
The England national football team had stayed in the area during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, so it is a place where elite sports stars have spent some time over the years.
The action was intense on the freshly laid snap court as the various teams through the age groups did battle for the trophies on offer. The screams and shouts of the young boys and girls filled the air with electric energy.
Basketball was the focus here and has been so since 2011 when the Jr. NBA Finals first took place in Phokeng. This was the vision of the King of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, Kgosi Leruo Molotlegi and Amadou Gallo Fall the NBA Africa Managing Director and Basketball Africa League President.
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The Jr. NBA program in Phokeng is the flagship one on the continent and has gone from strength to strength with a number of the young participants going on to tertiary educational institutions and some even studying abroad. A few have gone on to play basketball overseas, but the aim of the program is to give the kids more than just on-the-court skills, it’s about giving them life skills and the chance at furthering their education.
Fall believes that much of the credit for the success of this program should go to the King, “It’s worked because you have leadership, you have visionary leadership here. So, you have a community that has a King that has the ambition to build his community. Focusing on the youth and building infrastructure. And I think that Kgosi recognized our push and our belief in the power of sport as an avenue, a tool for self-realization and also to build character in youth and to build community.”
The Jr. NBA initiatives across the African continent, there are 15 of them in total now, have been a huge success for the NBA as they have brought the game of basketball to numerous communities across Africa. This program was the beginning of a process with elite talent development the next step, that saw the development of the NBA Academy Africa in Saly in Senegal in 2018. Following that the next logical step was the formation of an African basketball league and that would close the loop from grassroots to the pros.
Fall serves as the President of the newly formed Basketball Africa League (BAL) that sees the NBA and FIBA partnering to bring the first Pan-African professional basketball league to life. For Fall this has been the overarching plan, “Since we’ve expanded the footprint of this program here (in Phokeng) which was the first, which we launched in 2011, now to take it to 14 other countries, you have Jr. NBA that’s continuing to grow. Then we started looking at elite talent development launching NBA Academy Africa (in Senegal).
Now with the Basketball Africa League, you are almost completing that pathway from grassroots to elite talent identification and development, now where would all of that talent go? The NBA can absorb a very very small amount of those who are super talented, but this Basketball Africa League provides us with an avenue where these young players can also showcase their talent, monetize it and we grow an industry.”
Fall is certain this is the best way to make the league work at it’s best, by feeding the whole basketball environment from the bottom to the top, youth level to the most experienced personnel. This is a chance for people, young and old to turn their passion into their profession.
Everyone has a part to play in the endeavour and he articulated this passionately, “This is really, in a very organic way, how we are going to launch, promote and sustain the Basketball Africa League by creating an ecosystem that is going to create employment on and off the court.”
It is the professional nature of the enterprise that the NBA and FIBA have been pushing as they want to see this league become one of the very best in the world. That only happens if the numerous teams and the league office get the administration done right. So far all has gone smoothly with many of the first rounds of qualifying tournaments having been completed.
After the qualifiers the 16 qualified teams will then face off in the Elite 16 tournament, they will be separated into two groups of eight and the top three teams from those groups will take part in the inaugural season of the BAL. Completing the lineup for the first ever BAL will be the champions from Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia. They will complete the Basketball Africa League 2020 regular season lineup of 12 teams.
Gallo Fall expects nothing but the best from all involved in the league, from the team administrators to the players and officials as they make history on the continent, “Our expectation is excellence. We’re not just trying out anything. It’s not like, ‘Hey okay let’s start small and see.’ We are going to come out with a bang.
You know we want 12 clubs that are going to be very well run that is going to be very well structured, that is going to attract elite talent from around the world. Because you know, for each of the teams (there is) a 12-man roster, eight will be local in-born players and then you have four players that could be imported and out of those four, two have to come from other African countries.
We are unapologetically trying to push and build and promote African talent, and then you know, build this league to a world-class standard. So, we want packed arenas, we want incredible entertainment, we want beautiful basketball that is going to be broadcast to a global audience and a Pan-African audience.”
The Jr. NBA was the beginning and the many triumphs of the program have led to the formation of the academy and now the new league. The BAL can’t fail if others share in Fall’s vision and so far, his vision is bearing fruit.