Africa: The NBA’s Final Frontier

By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah

You get used to the hundred-degree weather quickly. And all the trash. And all the poverty around you. You have to be happy; the sun is so prominent in the sky. There’s no other race of human beings the sun gives more attention to than your people. That might be a stretch, but come on; today, like all days, can only get better.

 

Today, after school, you and your friends will play some soccer. One of them put in a nasty, nefarious tackle that you didn’t appreciate. His mysteriously pointy studs felt ironclad, cutting you down like a tree. It ended with your loud thud to the dusty soil that looks like it’s from Mars. It’s not rich enough in red hue, though. Instead, it reminds you of the abject poverty that you’d kill to escape from. In short, you have a score to settle.

 

Not a literal score: your team did win 4-0 last time. Nothing short of a spanking. It was all because of this really good kid that you hope is on your team again. His name is…Geoffrey? Whatever—he could be the next big thing in soccer. He keeps the ball at his feet closer than a mother keeps her baby. Lionel Messi himself could never. The temperature was 102°, yet he was freezing defenders who had no answer in stopping him. It’s simple math: nine plus ten cannot equal twenty-one, and you plus forty of the best defenders in the world could not stop Geoffrey.

 

You get to that dusty pitch that you hope to dominate like Geoff…hey, where is he? “Probably signing a contract with Manchester United,” you joke. All of a sudden, it starts to rain. The pitch is muddied, but that never stopped you or your friends from playing the game you love.

 

Meanwhile, the rain hits the glass window hard at Heathrow Airport in London. Geoffrey is waiting there, confused. Where’s the youth coach from Manchester United that was supposed to greet him? He, the soon-to-be king of Manchester, was supposed to be taken to the city, where the sun would illuminate the pitch of the stadium, his throne-to-be. Instead, rainy London had just been a layover. A shadow of the reality that poor Geoffrey was about to face.

 

Little did Geoffrey know that his “agent” had set him up. His parents, initially reluctant but ultimately dazzled by the idea of their son being the second coming of Messi, had paid a heartburning fee to a shady agent for him to set up a trial with some club in Slovakia. Don’t ask me what club. Truth is, the trial was never set up. Once the two landed in Slovakia, the “agent” would—surprise, surprise—disappear. Alone, Geoffrey would be left to forage for food scraps like a raccoon in a country he hadn’t even known existed.

 

Maybe he’ll get a job. The language will be a nightmare to decipher, though, never mind using it. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll get to go to school. Or maybe he gets sucked into another human trafficking ring. Either or. Let’s not even get started on family. If—and this is a big “if”—he ever sees his parents again, it won’t be for a very, very long time.

 

If only you could fathom how much Geoffrey’s parents pray every day to make that decision again! The allure of their son becoming a superstar. The riches he would bring! Now, without him on the already-struggling farm, the family was on its final financial legs. The little food they had will dwindle and dwindle until there’s nothing left. Their health will dwindle with the food.

 

The problem of aspiring African soccer players having their dreams turn into nightmares by dodgy agents is not just a heartbreaking page-turner; it’s a heartbreaking crisis.

 

So…let’s change the situation up a bit. What if Geoffrey wasn’t the next Messi but the next…Joel Embiid? When he posted up on you, his shifty feet mocked the defensive stance of elite NBA-level centers. His beefy body beat up on your inferior frame. Every time he’d back into you, you felt a boom. You wouldn’t admit it, but you intentionally removed yourself from the post up. Not only to escape the abuse, but to stare in awe as his soft touch laid the ball into the basket.

 

And it wasn’t just anecdotes from townsfolk who think a nice layup calls for celebration. Geoffrey had been anointed as heir to the throne by a professional scout who restlessly studied the tapes, vigorously crunched the numbers, and found basketball’s next sensation.

 

This is why the NBA wants to start up a league in Africa, called the Basketball Africa League. 12 teams from 10 countries. Even with the cultural stronghold soccer has on the continent, basketball holds a good grip of its own.

 

Iconic legends like Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon. Current superstars like Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo (born in Greece but of Nigerian descent). Former stars like Serge Ibaka and Luol Deng. Rising stars like Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby (born in England but of Nigerian descent). The league has not only been transformed by African talent; it’s been, is, and will continue to be dependent on it.

 

And don’t worry about basketball being slandered as “too American” or soccer not letting go of its hold on the African consciousness. Soccer and basketball have been engaged for a long time. They might as well be married.

 

Take LeBron James owning an 2% stake in British soccer club Liverpool, for example. Or Lakers guard Josh Hart regularly tweet-confessing his love for Chelsea. Or soccer superstars at the top of their game unapologetically fangirling their favorite basketball clubs.

 

The intermingling between the two sports’ biggest personalities most definitely trickles down to the fans of soccer, especially in Africa. Seeing how their idols are infatuated with a sport that they don’t play has the effect of normalizing basketball to the African consciousness.

 

As aforementioned, the pathway from small villages in Africa to European soccer giants can be very unstable. The introduction of a more stable league will attract young Africans begging on their knees to escape the everyday poverty that plagues their homeland. The same dream of bringing riches and joy back to their families and communities can still be realized—there’s just more than one way to achieve those dreams.

 

Let’s also not forget the other job opportunities opened up by introducing a brand new sports league. Every sports team needs team doctors, coaches, trainers, scouts, financial advisors, financial officers, general managers, marketers—recruiting for these roles won’t be easy, but as Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri puts it, it’s completely worth it.

 

Ujiri, who has three African players on his roster, admits that the logistics of the league will be hard to get around. But he believes that with the superstars that have come from the continent, “there [aren’t] two guys like that walking around on the continent.”

 

And he’s completely right. Take someone like Siakam, who only dedicated himself to the game as a teenager. Giannis, too. Africa is a sleeping giant whose body consists of raw yet talented kids that can pick up a basketball at age 17 and still make the NBA.

 

Oh, and Barack Obama is supposed to be heavily involved. That’s great bec…well, actually, I don’t need to explain. It’s Barack Hussein Obama.

 

For the Africans who tearfully pray for the uplifting of their community, the Basketball Africa League is stuffed with the opportunity for them to take control of their own destiny. Not a corrupt politician. Not the past horrors of colonialism. Them.

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