TACOMA, Washington — Manute Bol was drafted by the Washington Bullets with the 31st overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft. Throughout his life, Bol donated a significant portion of his salary to aid anti-poverty efforts in Sudan. When he died in 2010, former Senator Sam Brownback said, “I can’t think of a person that I know of in the world who used their celebrity status for a greater good than what Manute Bol did. He used it for his people. He gave his life for his people.”
Bol was not born a basketball star. In what is now known as South Sudan, Bol was part of the Dinka tribe. When he started to play basketball, he suffered prejudice from North Sudanese players. Eventually, Bol found his way to the United States to play college basketball. Coming from an African tribe, Bol had many difficulties adjusting to a different culture and language. However, scouts soon started to take notice of the seven-foot-six-inch giant from South Sudan.
Like Bol’s tremendous humanitarian efforts, the NBA is contributing to global anti-poverty efforts in Africa by creating the Basketball Africa League, which works to stimulate local economies and strengthen international relations.
International Expansion of the NBA
When it comes to basketball, it does not get any better than the NBA. The NBA has established itself as the premier basketball league. It has a multi-billion dollar ecosystem with players being paid millions in salary, enormous TV deals, merchandise sales and more. Most of this money is based in the United States; however, the NBA has also been trying to grow internationally. In 1995, the NBA created the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies as part of its expansion into Canada. Once dominated by Americans, many NBA star players now come from all over the world.
The league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, was born in Greece to Nigerian parents. Rising star Luka Dončić is from Slovenia. All-stars Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam are both from Cameroon. Unfortunately, the NBA has struggled to accommodate the international growth of basketball. Not many NBA scouts attend EuroLeague games to look for prospects. As a result, most international players find it hard to adjust to the American-dominated environment.
While the NBA continuously works to increase its global outreach, many players are also taking matters into their own hands. Dikembe Mutombo was one of the first players to be known for his humanitarian efforts, but he was certainly not the last. Mutombo, a Hall of Famer from the Democratic Republic of Congo, created his own foundation called the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to promote healthcare and education in the Congo.
Bismack Biyombo is a current NBA player also from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has a foundation that provides opportunities for children in education and sports, following his predecessors’ footsteps. Bol’s humanitarian work included raising money for refugees and working with the Sudan Sunrise group with the goal of building 41 schools in Sudan.
The Basketball Africa League
In 2019, the NBA announced its first cooperation with the International Basketball Federation in the creation of the Basketball Africa League (BAL). This was a momentous step forward for the NBA in contributing to global anti-poverty efforts by increasing its reach in Africa. The BAL is the premier basketball league in Africa. While Africa has had professional basketball in the past, most of it had been split into local competitions, such as the Rwandan National Basketball League or the Nigerian Premier Basketball League.
The BAL spans the entire continent of Africa with 12 teams from 32 different countries competing. This league establishes an exciting new investment into the untapped market of Africa’s sports scene. Large corporations like Nike and Pepsi have also invested in the Basketball Africa League to ensure its success. Sportswear companies Nike and Jordan helped design and produce jerseys for the 12 BAL teams, bringing a modern and exciting look to the league.
While basketball is becoming increasingly popular in Africa, many cannot afford to play. Former WNBA player Astou Ndiaye called basketball a “luxury sport.” Unlike football or rugby, basketball requires a flat playing court with designated baskets at each side. While basketball can be played outside, almost all professional basketball is played indoors, making it even more expensive. Fortunately, the BAL hopes to make the sport more accessible to everyone.
Hearing from Brian Kirungi
The Basketball Africa League looks to spread the positive effects basketball can have in Africa, such as increased post-secondary education. The Borgen Project spoke with Brian Kirungi, the president of the Patriots Basketball Club, which is one of the 12 teams competing in the BAL. Kirungi has personally seen the impact basketball has had in his community: “We’ve seen a number of players go through college. As a club, we’ve paid tuitions to college, so they make themselves better . . . So, it’s a huge impact that we’ve seen over the last six years.”
The NBA’s decision to create the Basketball Africa League is about more than expanding its international reach; it also recognizes the potential of Africa’s sports industry. As more basketball players come from Africa and as more Africans watch basketball, the BAL looks to make a profit and show the world high-quality basketball that everyone can watch.
As Brian Kirungi puts it, “When it comes to the BAL, it’s a professional league over the whole continent . . . So, the competition is different [as is]the level of players, the level of coaching, the level of management [and]commercialization of the game. So, it’s really at the highest level.” TV deals, merchandise and player salaries all look to stimulate Africa’s economy, which especially helps impoverished communities. No wonder Dikembe Mutombo called the BAL a “dream come true.”
Basketball in Africa has come a long way since Manute Bol left his Dinka tribe to play in the NBA. Now, numerous NBA stars come from the continent, and the sport is as exciting as ever. The Basketball Africa League looks to continue this success by creating a premier sports league that attracts foreign investment. Perhaps basketball will no longer be a “luxury sport” but a common activity that can bring everyone together. While the BAL still has a long way to go, it is already making hoop dreams come true.
– Evan Weber