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The NBA Has Taken Basketball to One of Africa’s Top Destinations

It’s still early days, but the buzz over the weeks preceding the tournament is proof that the BAL is certainly going to have a cultural impact on Africa’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world.

The land of a thousand hills is the stage for the NBA’s most ambitious global partnership yet, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) which is taking place from May 16-30. Rwanda, which has proved to be one of the most progressive promoters of travel and tourism in recent years, is hosting 12 basketball clubs from 12 African countries competing for the inaugural season of Africa’s premier basketball club competition.

Organized in partnership with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the BAL is building on existing basketball structures on the continent, this time bringing the NBA’s expertise in developing a global brand that will showcase African talent on home soil. To qualify, six countries with the strongest national championships were granted automatic places for their champions, while 31 countries competed for the remaining six places through FIBA Africa’s BAL Qualifying Tournaments.

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The 12 finalists have been drawn into three groups of four teams, with two in each group qualifying to the Super 6 playoffs. Teams in the Super 6 will be in playoffs against each other this week in a round-robin tournament to qualify for the BAL Final Four on May 28 which will be single elimination games, with the two winners going on to play in the first-ever BAL Final on May 30.

Originally designed to reflect the NBA model of an East and a West Conference, with games across seven cities in Africa, the COVID pandemic forced organizers to move the entire tournament to a bubble in Rwanda where they could implement strict health protocols. Fans across the continent will have the opportunity to see their teams play in subsequent editions of the BAL, as well as travel to watch their teams play in other cities across Africa.

Rwanda has opened up for travelers from every part of the world provided they present a negative COVID test performed within 72 hours of departure.

Kirezi Arnaud [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons
Long-term, the BAL has the potential to open up opportunities for local and international tourism as well as cultural exchanges between Africa and the rest of the world. This is already evident in the make-up of the participating clubs, with each team permitted to enlist four foreign players. Two of these four foreign players have to be from an African country.

There’s already a strong American presence at the BAL with at least 17 American players suiting up for the 12 clubs. For many of these Americans, it will be another chance to be involved in an NBA tournament while some will be auditioning for another shot at the NBA. The league has tried to strike a balance between having local players that preserve the identity of the clubs with just the right number of foreign players to raise the level and attract interest from outside Africa in the NBA’s first official league out of North America. The BAL is headed by former NBA Vice-president Amadou Gallo Fall, a Senegalese basketball executive who has also worked the Dallas Mavericks.

It’s still early days, but the buzz over the weeks preceding the tournament is proof that the BAL is certainly going to have a cultural impact on Africa’s relationship with itself and the rest of the world. Filming has already started on a documentary about the BAL’s inaugural season, a collaboration between award-winning film producer Richard Brown (Outlaw King, True Detective, Catch-22), Oscar-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens (Tiger King, Palmer, The Cove), and Nigerian director and producer Akin Omotoso (Man on Ground, Vaya). The documentary will be directed by South African director Tebogo Malope.

By filming in all the 12 countries involved in the BAL and headlining an African director on a global project, the tournament is opening up new avenues for the arts and digital content from African creators. Major broadcasters have already signed up to screen games including NBA TV, ESPN Africa, CANAL+ Afrique, Voice of America, TSN, Tencent Video, and beINSPORTS with more set to be announced as the tournament kicks off.

The BAL Groups

Group A: GNBC (Madagascar), US Monastir (Tunisia), Rivers Hoopers (Nigeria), Patriots (Rwanda). US Monastir and Patriots have advanced.

Group B: AS Police (Mali), AS Sale (Morocco), FAP (Cameroon), Petro de Luanda (Angola). Petro de Luanda, FAP, and AS Sale have advanced.

Group C: AS Douanes (Senegal), Ferrovario de Maputo (Mozambique), Zamalek (Egypt), GS Petroliers (Algeria). AS Doanes, Ferrovario de Maputo, and Zamalek have advanced.

One thing viewers will not miss is the Visit Rwanda logo on all the BAL uniforms. This is a conscious effort to put Rwanda on every traveler’s radar as the country strives to grow tourism with winning partnerships across the world.

Rwanda has already shown tact in leveraging sports to promote tourism with its partnerships with soccer clubs Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain, but its promotion of the BAL is a move that will rub off on the whole of Africa. There’s potential for Rwanda to position its parks, animal sanctuaries, and packaged experiences as a starting point for travel across Africa.

Visit Rwanda’s efforts will certainly receive a boost with the anticipated debut of Grammy award-winner J. Cole who featured for Rwanda’s Patriots BBC. Patriots, with head coach Alan Major, power forward Brandon Costner, center George Blakeney, and rapper J. Cole giving the home team a strong North Carolina vibe. Alan Major coached the University of North Carolina at Charlotte college basketball team between 2010 and 2015 while Costner and Blakeney have represented college teams from the State.

The league will also has an ex-NBA player in Ben Uzoh who spent time with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors. It’s relying on a host of NBA legends like Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo among others to raise the profile of the league, and hopes it serves as a pipeline to feed the very top talents to the NBA.

The world would be watching to see how this new project influences the future of sport, global cultural collaborations, and how this helps draw more visitors to Africa.

Americans Players at the BAL

AS Douanes; Chris Cokley, Rivers Hoopers; Taren Sullivan, Chris Daniels, *Ben Uzoh Patriots BBC; George Blakeney, Brandon Costner, J. Cole AS Police; Jawachi Nzeakor, Mylo Mitchell, US Monastir; Chris Crawford, Petro de Luanda; Joe Ebondo, GS Petroliers; Devin Green, J’Mison Morgan, Demarius Bolds, FAP Cameroon; Matthew Hezekiah, Marcus Thomas, GNBC (Madagascar); Cameron Ridley,