The NBA basketball finals start Thursday, when the Golden State Warriors face off against the Toronto Raptors. Regardless of who wins, the Finals will cap off a championship season of basketball wherein African players were not only on the floor, they were sometimes the biggest stars, making the biggest plays. With the first NBA training center opening in Africa opening in Thies, Senegal and a new league starting on the continent, it’s something that could become more common.
Just look at the Toronto Raptors: Serge Ibaka, born in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, and Pascal Siakam, born in Douala, Cameroon, will be responsible for defense and for taking advantage of Golden State’s soft interior defense. Lest you think they’re not up for the task, consider the biggest stars Toronto bested en route to the Finals: Joel Embiid, another Cameroonian, is growing into an absolute terror of a modern NBA center for the Philadelphia 76ers; and the Milwaukee Bucks’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, born to Nigerian immigrants in Greece, who was seen as likely the best player in the playoffs until running into Toronto’s brick wall defense. You’d have to go back to the days of Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigerian-American) and Dikembe Mutombo (Congolese-American) banging around in the post to see teams so reliant on African stars. The Embiid-Siakam showdown in the playoffs even turned into a proxy war for the rivalry between their hometowns of Douala and Yaounde, Cameroon.
“At the end of the day, we’re both at the top of our teams and we represent our country,” Siakam told the Toronto Sun. “That’s just like a sense of being proud and obviously we have a long way to go in our continent and our country but we’re heading in the right direction and having guys in the league representing our country, just like, the youth of Africa in general is definitely inspirational.”
And it’s not just the pros. At the college level, perhaps the most memorable play of the NCAA tournament was the buzzer-beater from Mamadi Diakite, born in Conkary, Guinea, which kept Virginia’s title hopes alive. And Tacko Fall, at 7' 6", helped bring UCF to within a point of knocking off the Duke Blue Devils.
Growing up in Senegal, Fall played a lot more soccer than basketball—in fact, so did Embiid and Siakam in Cameroon—but the NBA is looking to give more people worldwide a chance to play basketball and see it played at a high level.
Starting play in 2020, the Basketball Africa league will operate with the support of the NBA and FIBA, the world’s governing body of basketball, and will have 12 teams. Six teams will be champions of African leagues, and six will be selected through qualification tournaments, according to the L.A. Times. Amadou Gallo Fall, the NBA’s vice president and managing director for Africa, will be the BAL’s president.
Sports are a common ground, as much of a mainstream as anything else we have in pop culture. It’s one more conduit of cultural exchange too. For American audiences, “Africa” becomes a little less monolithic when they hear about the origins of their favorite new players. It’s hard to picture any other way that a bunch of people in Wisconsin would learn to correctly pronounce “Antetokounmpo.”
Top image: (Themba Hadebe/AP)