On Feb. 16, 2019, Amadou Fall proudly stood on a stage with Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Dikembe Mutombo, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and numerous other basketball dignitaries from the NBA, WNBA and the world as the Basketball Africa League (BAL) was announced. The initial expectation was that the inaugural BAL season was going to be played in seven African cities beginning in 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans.
On Sunday, the BAL will finally tip off when the Nigeria Rivers Hoopers face the Kigali Patriots BBC in Kigali, Rwanda. For Fall, the BAL president, it will be emotional.
“It’s one of those things that is in the mind, but we can’t plan how you feel,” Fall told The Undefeated. “But all I know is the amount of work that has gone into this from many people and you think about all those who behind the scenes have been working, not just the past year, but before. And this is a combination of many decades of work from many people to grow the game on the continent to not only big time to the global stage, but also looking to build an ecosystem right here on the continent.
“Just the support that we’ve had from top level at the NBA and also FIBA, is going to be manifested in reality on May 16. So, it’s a lot of anticipation, not just for me, but everybody involved. So, I think it is going to be something unique and special. I just don’t know what [the] moment is going to be like, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The BAL, which is a partnership between the NBA and the International Basketball Federation, will feature 12 teams from across Africa: Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia. It is the NBA’s first collaboration to operate a league outside of North America.
The teams will play 26 games at Kigali Arena. Former NBA player Ben Uzoh (Nigeria), former McDonald’s All American Myck Kabongo (Mozambique), famed rapper J. Cole and several former G League and NCAA Division I players will participate in the BAL.
The following is a Q&A with Fall about the arrival of the BAL, the challenges of the pandemic and the future of the league.
The Basketball Africa League was one of the first professional sports leagues to suspend its season on March 4, 2020, due to the pandemic, nine days before the inaugural debut was scheduled in Dakar, Senegal. What went through your mind at that time?
I remember talking to [NBA deputy commissioner] Mark Tatum when we started really thinking about it. I remember seeing one [COVID-19] case in Tunisia and then in other countries that were sending teams to the BAL. This thing is such a historic opportunity for the continent, and we didn’t want to take any chance of launching it under any type of cloud or uncertainty. And we had people who were worried. We were very close to booking all the team flights to head to Dakar. And then I know a lot of people, fans from around the world, who have already bought tickets to come.
But look, the safety and health of all involved takes precedent and a priority. So, it was tough. Obviously, you’re disappointed. You’re working very hard for this and this was going to be an incredible moment. But then at the same time, you put the emotions aside and just be realistic about making sure that you don’t launch this with risks and then just have a cloud hanging over you. So, it was disappointing, but we didn’t hesitate one second about whether that was the right decision or not.
What have you done with that time to put the league in a better place, with the 14 additional months?
I saw an ESPN story where the coach from the Rivers Hoopers in Nigeria said that it was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. And for us too, because we were going to play over the space of three months in a caravan style, going to seven different countries. So, there’s a lot of logistical operations that we have to undertake for the first time ever. So you never know what to expect. So it definitely, at the time, allowed us to know more, to learn more. But we also use it as an opportunity to engage more with our teams.
We talked about building the entire ecosystem with the league. This league is going to be a key driver in an African sports industry that is massive. So the idea was that we’re not just looking to develop better players, which we are, and this is happening. We’re going to attract and grow talent and also be able to retain some of the talent on the continent. But we also want to develop better coaches, we want to develop better referees. We want to develop better team managers, broadcast operations people, all these jobs that revolve around putting a professional basketball product on the court.
And this is why we talk about the BAL as an economic growth engine for the continent. You see that these countries are starting to build this infrastructure because they are buying into the idea that sports can actually contribute tremendously to the GDP of the country, just like it does for most of the Western countries. So, we spend time engaging and kind of continuing to advocate for more government to look at sports beyond this recreation. And certainly with basketball, where we are showing tangible examples. And this is why we’re excited to see over the next few weeks to have a great regular season.
Has there been a specific moment since you arrived in Rwanda that has meant a lot to you?
Landing at the airport and just how smoothly everything went, because you get tested at the airport, too. So, just the level of organization from our events group, our security department, our medical department working seamlessly with the random authorities to really create an environment. Which really is why we chose to come here to Rwanda, because we knew that this is where we had the best chance of having the single-site season and doing it in a safe environment and position us for success.
Can you describe the quarantine, and what’s the daily testing routine?
Get tested once a day, that’s the protocol. This is my first time quarantining. It’s been good. It’s been fine. And then you are trying to host a global event and also something that’s never been done before. It’s an opportunity to really make history in basketball for Africa, certainly. But definitely also on the global stage, because for the first time NBA partnering to launch a professional league that’s been much anticipated because of the long wait.
But I think because everybody has a measure of what the moment means, what the opportunity means, and I’m talking from all the teams and all the pro teams are here, all the players, staffs and the different federations involved, partners. Everybody’s adhering strictly to this protocol, and everybody’s working together to make sure that we position ourselves for success.
Did the BAL take a lot of similar things from the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, for your bubble?
Dr. Leroy Sims is leading us here along with Dr. Prince Campbell, who is a medical lead for the BAL who is from Ghana, and Dr. Ralph Roberts, also. These are NBA people who have a vast amount of experience. They’re leading the charge and putting it all together. Without getting into specifics of what was done in Orlando versus here, I just am comforted to know that we have that caliber of professionals in the medical field who are leading the charges here for us.
What do you think of the talent?
I love the talent. It’s a very good level. We have about something like 20-plus players with G League experience and NCAA experience. These are players that I know and have seen during my scouting days with the Mavericks. Not getting specific, but Walter Hodge won a championship with Florida with Udonis Haslem and Joakim Noah. Myck Kabongo played at Texas. Ben Uzoh. I’ve seen a number of young Americans who are very excited. And just the way they were received here, the level of professionalism, organization, that’s what they’re all commenting on.
What are your thoughts on the rapper J. Cole playing in the BAL with the Rwanda Patriots BBC and how does that help the exposure of the league?
It’s exciting that the multi-talented J. Cole has the skills to be among the incredible group of players competing in the inaugural Basketball Africa League season. Having spoken with him directly over the past few days, he’s very appreciative of the opportunity to be part of this groundbreaking initiative and is taking his preparation for the games extremely seriously. I’m looking forward to seeing what impact he has on the BAL when the first game tips off on Sunday.
Do you think the BAL could have a player that gets drafted by the NBA this year?
For me, the priority is to make sure that I attract top talent from around the world, and also top talent from the continent. And I see, what I mentioned is this former campus at Basketball Without Borders [Africa], who are coming back. That’s really the sign that now these guys are playing all over the world and they know with this they’re coming home. And there are a big number of them.
When I look at the national teams, for example, there are many BAL players that are on [African] national teams. They’re choosing to stay and play professionally in their country to play for the [native] club because they want to win the local championship to participate in this league, in this continent’s champions league. Obviously, I don’t know every single player, but I can tell you that there will be plenty that can play. I know a few young players, for example, who were in the SEEDS [the first basketball student-athlete academy in Africa Academy in Senegal] who are playing on teams.
But as we go, there’s no doubt we will have NBA scouts coming. There are a few coming to attend this season. But I think this will be a showcase and another tool for NBA teams to get to evaluate talent. I don’t know about this year, because we are going to have to see.
Could you have another season this year?
Not this calendar year, but what we do know is, now with the partnership with FIBA, out of our 12 teams, six come from countries that are designated, like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Nigeria and Angola. And this is really based on the basketball landscape in terms of countries that have had traditions and talent, and infrastructure and interests in basketball. You have the six who came from qualifiers that FIBA hosted.
So, FIBA’s going to host these qualifiers again. … We will take the champions from the six countries, the ones that won this year, plus the incoming six that will come from the qualifiers that FIBA will run, which we will support, in the last quarter of this year.
Do you have an idea when the next BAL season will start?
We have an idea, but we will communicate around it. It will be in 2022. Not in the first quarter, for sure. But we’ll find a window there. We hope that the pandemic will be in a different stage and that we will return to our original planned format.
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