Skip to main content

NBA Africa

Slam dunk! Inside the NBA’s Basketball Africa League

In May the NBA defied the threat of Covid-19 to host its first ever tournament outside the US. Does it represent a watershed for basketball in Africa and the continent’s sports business industry?

On a late May evening in the cavernous Kigali Arena in Rwanda, the players of Egypt’s Zamalek SC triumphantly lifted a newly minted golden trophy confirming them as champions of the inaugural Basketball Africa League (BAL).

NBA Africa

Showered with sparkling confetti, the players celebrated their 76-63 win over Tunisian rivals US Monastir. After years of planning, the BAL – a joint venture between the US-based National Basketball Association (NBA) and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), had successfully concluded its first season. After a build-up marred by Covid-19, the completion of one of the highest-profile new sporting events on the continent was no small feat.

From courtside invites to French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwandan President Paul Kagame to games broadcast globally and partnerships with international brands, the NBA staked its hard-won credibility on launching a successful and thrilling tournament capable of attracting a new fanbase and building on a decade’s worth of African development efforts.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame speak during a Basketball Africa League (BAL) match in the Kigali Arena.

French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame at a Basketball Africa League (BAL) match in the Kigali Arena on May 27, 2021. (Photo: Ludovic MARIN / various sources / AFP)

While crowds were necessarily sparse due to Covid, the NBA scattered celebrity stardust over proceedings with appearances by US-rapper J. Cole – who played three games for the Rwanda Patriots – and a live performance by Rwandan musician Bruce Melodie.

The NBA also supported the league in more prosaic ways, from its experience with training match officials to its reach with commercial and media partners. Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa, says that under the circumstances, the first BAL was a success.

“We’re very happy with how it went. It took a lot of work to launch this inaugural season in the middle of Covid, and when we measure the elements of success, health and safety was number one. The fact that we came through with no players contracting Covid-19 was a powerful testament to the protocols we put in place and the rigour with which we executed them.

“Getting worldwide distribution and making the games available to more than 1bn viewers around the world was testament to the success of our outreach and the willingness of media partners to take up and show the tournament.” 

After postponing the BAL, originally scheduled to start in March 2020 in Dakar, Senegal, organisers decided to host an adjusted competition entirely at the Kigali Arena. Prior to the tournament, all players had to quarantine before individual and group practice. All arrivals in Rwanda had to submit a negative PCR test and be tested on arrival.

Learning from the NBA’s US experience, the 12 teams entered a strict bubble in which they were tested daily as the tournament progressed from a group stage to the quarters, semis and final. Given all the challenges, watching Zamalek celebrate was a thrilling moment, says BAL’s president, Amadou Gallo Fall.

“There were lots of challenges because we had to move over 500 people of 52 nationalities in the bubble, from our teams from all 12 countries to the different vendors and partners we had to get to Kigali. Thinking about flights, restrictions, the Covid protocols you had to navigate, the challenge was enormous, but this makes the outcome even more rewarding to have pulled it off.”


Leave a Reply