Basketball Africa League, a source of pride and a possible stepping stone.
The hardwood of Kigali’s BK Arena has been coated with a vibrant green and yellow. The sound of trumpets fills the stadium. Flags of Angola and Tunisia adorn the first row of chairs.
This is the setting for the Basketball Africa League finals on May 28 between Tunisia’s US Monastir and Angola’s Petro de Luanda. As the back-and-forth game nears its conclusion, 10,000 supporters will rise from their seats. US Monastir finally wins the championship with an 83-72 victory, capping up a successful second season with the franchise’s first BAL title.
The BAL is the only NBA-affiliated league outside of North America. The BAL, which debuted in February 2019, is a one-of-a-kind collaboration between the NBA and FIBA that includes 12 club teams from throughout the continent.
The first season was supposed to begin in March 2020, but it was pushed back to May 2021 owing to the COVID-19 outbreak and moved to a bubble environment in Kigali. The BAL expanded into three cities in season two — Dakar, Senegal; Cairo, Egypt; and Kigali — with a round-robin group stage separated into two conferences of six, followed by a single-elimination playoff format.
So far, the BAL has piqued the attention of both local and worldwide markets. Crowds at Rwanda’s BK Arena were near full capacity (10,000) during the playoffs, and the league reported more than 400 million fan interactions on internet channels.
The BAL aims to present itself as serving two functions. It’s an opportunity for African native players to spread the game throughout the continent. The league intends to be a hotspot for basketball talent from across the globe to come closer to their ultimate goal of playing in the NBA.
Michael Dixon Jr., the BAL postseason’s finest player, is among that talent. The 31-year-old guard landed in the United States three months ago, joining his fourth club and nation in July 2021.
“Just to be able to play basketball on one of the world’s largest continents was something I wanted to be a part of,” Dixon told The Athletic.
Now a BAL champion and Hakeem Olajuwon MVP Award winner, he capped up his spectacular playoff effort with 21 points in the championship game. Dixon averaged 16.5 points and 4.1 assists per game during US Monastir’s five-game group stage and 21.3 points per game during the playoffs.
“Michael took control,” remarked Miodrag Perii, coach of US Monastir. “He deserves it.” He worked quite hard.”
Dixon began on a continental adventure to resume his basketball career after being undrafted in 2014 after a four-year collegiate stint at Missouri and Memphis. Dixon traveled to Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Greece, France, Turkey, Israel, Italy, and Georgia between 2014 and 2020.
At the start of 2021, the idea was to play for a Romanian pro club, but other important considerations intervened. Dixon returned to Athens, Greece, where he’d resided since 2016-17, since his wife, Sophia, was having issues with the birth of their second child. His wage in Romania was insufficient to sustain his family.
But it didn’t leave Dixon with many alternatives on the field. Dixon agreed to terms with Wilki Morskie Szczecin of Poland’s top-tier basketball league, the PLK, in July 2021. When he arrived at training camp, the club had just eight players. He departed Poland without having played a single game.
“It was a terrible circumstance,” Dixon said.
Dixon headed to Qatar to play for teams, but the level of play did not meet his expectations. He subsequently signed a trial contract with Maccabi Haifa, who had just been demoted to Israel’s second division, however, the club did not retain him following training camp. Dixon, who was on the wrong side of 30, wondered whether he’d ever have another opportunity to play in a competitive league on a huge platform.
Then, in February, US Monastir, Tunisia’s representative in the Basketball Africa League, phoned. Dixon recalls seeing US Monastir lose to Egypt’s Zamalek in the BAL’s initial season in 2021, but knew nothing more about them.
“Basketball has brought me somewhere I never thought possible,” Dixon added. “I wouldn’t be here performing it if I didn’t enjoy it.”
But what about Tunisia? Even for him, it was novel. Nonetheless, Dixon signed with US Monastir on February 8, 2022. His basketball life was forever transformed as a result of that encounter.
Dixon was immediately embraced by his new teammates. They gave Dixon a cake, snapped selfies with each other, and swapped introductions. It was then time to go to work. The squad had a single goal: to capture the BAL title after falling short in the finals the previous year.
“We recognized the possibilities,” Dixon said. “We knew we had to complete this while we were traveling.” Otherwise, it will be a failure.”
Dixon’s passion has had an impression on several long-time professionals who have found homes in the BAL.
D.J. Strawberry, the son of Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry, is on the list. He recently ended his debut year as a starting guard with Zamalek. Strawberry, like Dixon, is a basketball nomad.
The former University of Maryland star was taken by the Phoenix Suns in the 59th round of the 2007 NBA Draft. He spent three years in the NBA Development League before heading abroad to play in Lithuania, Croatia, France, Turkey, Greece, and Spain. But he admits the BAL is unique.
“I spent most of my career in the EuroCup or EuroLeague.” And this league [BAL] is a lot more physical than any other league I’ve played in.” Strawberry explained.
Strawberry is one of three former NBA players that will play in the BAL in 2022. Jamel Artis, who now plays for the Cape Town Tigers in South Africa, last played for the Orlando Magic in 2018. Another Zamalek player, Ike Diogu, was drafted ninth overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2005 NBA Draft and last appeared in the league in 2011.
Thirteen other BAL players participated in the now-defunct NBA G League at some point in their careers. One of them is South Sudan’s Ater James Majok, a forward/center with US Monastir who was drafted 58th overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. Though Majok tries not to think too far ahead, he can’t help but admire BAL’s standing in Africa’s athletic scene.
“There’s an exhilaration stepping out onto the floor, knowing you’re playing in the same venue as African basketball great,” Majok said. “I consider South Sudan.” I consider US Monastir. You don’t want to let anybody down when you’re carrying the weight of two nations.
Many other African-born players, like Majok, recognize the importance of remaining on the continent to help promote the game of basketball. Anas Mahmoud, born in Giza, Egypt, is a Zamalek player. From 2014 to 2018, he was a member of the University of Louisville basketball team. Mahmoud got his first professional deal with Zamalek in 2018 after going undrafted. Zamalek renewed Mahmoud’s contract for two years in May, retaining the Egyptian center until 2024.
“If you’re a talented player, you don’t have to leave Africa to play in Europe because we’re putting up a competitive league here,” Mahmoud said.
That’s music to the ears of BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall, a former Dallas Mavericks front-office leader. He emphasized the importance of having a diverse range of global players participating in the BAL, as well as fostering emerging talent.
“It is critical to bring in exceptional talent from across the globe, but it is even more critical to draw local heroes,” Fall remarked. “Talented African players who, prior to the BAL, would have had to leave the continent since there were no possibilities to play and earn a livelihood playing basketball at a high level.”
The BAL also intends to serve as a springboard for outstanding talents seeking important experience before heading to North America. The BAL developed a program named “BAL Elevate” for its second season. It permits one young talent from Senegal’s NBA Academy Africa to join each of the league’s 12 clubs.
“You can’t believe some of these kids are 15 or 16,” Strawberry remarked. “They act like mature guys.”
Ulrich Chomche, a Cameroonian who played for Cameroon FAP this season, is one of the 12 possibilities. According to Troy Justice, the NBA’s director of international basketball development, Chomche is one of the top prospects at the NBA Academy Africa.
Chomche aspires to play in the NBA with some of his favorite players, including Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and fellow Cameroonian Joel Embiid. The majority of 16-year-olds in the United States participate in high school and/or AAU basketball.
Chomche, on the other hand, gets to compete in the BAL against adult men. He not only learns from his teammates, but players from other teams also help him progress. When Cameroon FAP faced Zamalek, one of the opposition players advised Chomche on how to go up to the hoop with his right hand.
Chomche described them as “big brothers” to him.
Another NBA Academy Africa player making an impression is Guinean-born forward Mohamed Keita, who just committed to St. John’s in the NCAA. Keita put up 12 points, 12 rebounds, and seven blocked shots in a playoff game against Zamalek, with NBA and college scouts watching in person and electronically.
“It enables kids to learn, develop, contribute, and compete,” Justice said. “It’s on-the-job learning whenever you compete against someone older than you.” It’s a chance to broaden your game and figure out what you need to improve on after the game. It clarifies things for a young player striving to advance.”
Teenage performances like this illustrate the road between the NBA Academy Africa and the BAL. The NBA’s plan for attracting international talent in Africa begins at the grassroots level. Jr. NBA content is currently accessible in 15 African nations for boys and girls aged 16 and younger.
Then they go on to Basketball Without Borders, a 2003 instructional basketball camp with over 1,400 athletes from 30 African nations (two prominent camp alumni include Embiid and Toronto Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam). The NBA Academy Africa launched in Saly, Senegal, in 2018. It has two indoor basketball courts and serves as a training hub for African basketball talents aged 14 to 18.
African players that enroll in clinics, camps, or the Academy now have an achievable goal for professional basketball on the continent. According to Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa, the BAL is at the “head of the pyramid.”
“Our goal is to make this one of the most successful leagues in the world,” Williams added.
From there, the guys’ basketball ambitions are limitless. Some, like Dixon and Strawberry, utilize the BAL to further their careers elsewhere. However, not every athlete wants to go to North America. Many people, like Majok, recognize the value of remaining in Africa for the BAL.
“It’s informing young African players that we’re coming back to help improve the BAL,” Majok said. “It’s a worthwhile legacy to leave.”
Dixon sensed that heritage as he stood at center court for the start of US Monastir’s quarterfinal BAL playoff game versus Cape Town Tigers. He recognized a familiar figure in the crowd as he took in the blasting loud music and screaming fans: Joakim Noah, the former Florida Gator and NBA All-Star for the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks who is one of the numerous investors that helped create NBA Africa.
Dixon had been a fan of Noah since high school, remembering idolizing him when the Gators won back-to-back national titles. Noah is now Dixon’s greatest fan in Rwanda. When Dixon made a basket, he’d glance up to see Noah cheering him on. When Dixon ran up Noah after the final game, he pelted the US Monastir star with “M-V-P!” screams.
Dixon described the experience as “priceless.” “You never know where basketball may lead you.”
There are still many obstacles left for Dixon’s hoops journey and the BAL’s desire to become one of the world’s top basketball leagues. But everyone, from players to investors to fans, saw the vision at that moment.