PARIS - The death of American basketball star Kobe Bryant has caused worldwide mourning, and Africa is no exception. But along with the grief, there are signs of new enthusiasm for a sport that has, until now, not taken hold in much of the continent.
Promoters have been trying to grow basketball's presence on the continent for the past 20 years. With a rising number of African players now in the American NBA, those promoters hope Africans will embrace the region's talents and efforts when the Basketball Africa League, or BAL, launches in March.
Twelve African teams from Mozambique, Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali, Cameroon and many more will compete. The rules of the game will be up the standard of America and the world. The aim is to be excellent — and take on the best of them.
"Ultimately we want to grow our business on the continent and the Basketball Africa League is a professional basketball league," said Amadou Galo Fall, the NBA vice president and managing director for Africa, and the head of BAL.
"It is about building an industry and using basketball as an economic engine that is going to contribute to GDP of countries. The sports and entertainment industry and the creative industry in general contributes trillions of dollars in global GDP, and we want to make sure Africa starts to earn its part of this massive industry," he added.
Morocco's AS Sale basketball club was crowned African champion in 2017 and is among the 12 teams winning a spot in the BAL. Other countries with participating teams include Mozambique, Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Mali and Cameroon.
ElHassouni Abdallah, AS Sale's secretary-general, says representing the African continent is a source of pride and the team is eager to present a good image.
The National Basketball Association partnered with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to launch the new league. Among the challenges the promoters face: improving infrastructure — such as building more basketball courts — and persuading the region's governments to invest more.
"To solve this problem of infrastructures, we need the commitment of the governments," said Anibal Manave, head of FIBA Africa and a BAL board member. "For now, the best principle is to have public private partnerships. We believe this year Congo will build infrastructures, Guinea and Nigeria too. And we believe next year more countries will build infrastructures."
There is also a gender gap to address. Organizers are focusing on helping more women and girls gain access to the court.
"In all of our initiatives, we have boys and girls competing, training and learning from role models," Gallo Fall said. "We are committed to really grow our sport across genders. The WNBA has been around since 1997, and the good news in Africa is that the women's game is very strong."
Each BAL team is scheduled to play 5 games in the regular season. The final four tournament for the league will take place in Rwanda's capital, Kigali, around mid-year.