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NBA, Basketball Africa League and AFD: Developing Sport
The day before the January 24 game between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA and AFD held a press conference in Paris, marking the launch of a new league that will span the African continent: the Basketball Africa League. And with Agence française de développement, the League will be involved in important development initiatives.

Later this year, the squeak of sneakers and thuds of dunks and rebounds will resonate in Senegal’s Dakar Arena and other courts due to host Basketball Africa League teams. Not only is the new league of 12 teams bringing high-level basketball to the heart of Africa. It will also seek to fulfill development goals for education, health, citizenship, gender equality, sustainable development and entrepreneurship. 

This is the ambition driving the partnership between AFD and the NBA, the world-famous basketball league that launched, along with the International Basketball Federation, the new African league.  

“We must invest in Africa, in its youth and in sport,” says Rémy Rioux, AFD’s Executive Officer, adding that BAL is “a pan-African project led by Africans. This ambitious initiative will generate creativity and innovation, while changing the way the rest of the world views Africa.” 

A school for training citizens, a tool for economic development

Addressing the packed Paris auditorium, Amadou Gallo, President of the Basketball Africa League and Vice-President of the NBA acknowledged representatives from Mali, Rwanda, Angola and other African countries. “We share the same passion as AFD for Africa, and African youth in particular,” he said.

“Basketball has the strong potential to have an impact on African youth. And it is an ideal tool for developing true citizens, ready to carry our vision for the strong and independent Africa we all dream of.” 

The twelve teams will compete in six cities, and the finals will be played on the brand new court in Kigali, Rwanda. Players and fans will have many opportunities to travel, exchange, boost the tourism sector, and encourage the construction of new infrastructure. 

Sports diminish differences

Diana Gandega was born in France and was able to discover her father’s country, Mali, when she went to play for the national team. “I didn’t know the country and I didn’t speak the language. At first teammates called me the ‘white girl’, and ‘toubab’. And then they became my family. It’s the power of sports to erase differences.”

Ahmed Taofik sometimes walked three hours in the middle of the night to watch NBA games on Canal +, back in Benin. His mother gave him his first “Jordan” basketball shoes before her death two years later. He made her this promise posthumously: basketball will be my destiny. He went on to play for Benin’s national team. 

“I started practicing as hard as I could,” he says. “Thanks to basketball, I had the opportunity to complete my studies in the United States.” Now that his basketball career is over, he wants to give back, and has created the organization Enfants du Bénin Debout, or Rise Up, Benin Children. It organized the country’s first tournament combining male and female players as well as players with disabilities. 

Dick Rutatika Sano, on the other hand, is at the starting blocks of his b-ball career (video highlights). At 15, the young Rwandan is a member of the prestigious NBA Academy Africa, which combines sport and study. “I left my family to pursue basketball when I was 14 and started at a new kind of school. It was hard,” he explains to a panel of experts, clearly as comfortable with a microphone as he is with a basketball.

“But I’ve learned a lot, especially about how to be more independent.” And if basketball does not end up being his profession, Dick has a plan B: “I will become architect or engineer in my home country of Rwanda.”

Sport as a vector for development

Laëtitia Habchi is Deputy Head of the Social Cohesion Unit and Sports Advisor at AFD. When she mooted the creation of a Sport and Development platform, political commentator Pascal Boniface applauded it as a “small revolution”. “Just think,” said the founder of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), “a French public operator partnering with a private American operator, this has never been done before. What is more, this is in France, a country where sports are rarely promoted by the elite. Using sports as a driver for development means realizing that sports are for all of us.”

Indeed, as the NBA has shown in the US, sports can be a major economic driver. “Sports generate trillions of dollars in economies all over the world, but not in Africa. This needs to change,” says Amadou Gallo Fall. “All the elements are in place to make BAL a powerful economic driver for participating African countries.” 

As the conference came to an end, just one question hung in the air: in the US, women can play in the WNBA – the female equivalent of the NBA – so why is there no place for women in the Basketball Africa League? “It’s coming!” said the BAL president, Amadou Gallo. “We just need a little more time, but the commitment is there.”