NBA travels to Africa

As documented earlier this month during an interview with Mark Barak, the NBA’s VP of International Development, the NBA has established its first office in Africa. It’s located in Johannesburg, South Africa and will be led by Amadou Gallo Fall, who worked with the Dallas Mavericks for the past 12 years as Director of Player Personnel and Vice President of International Affairs.

Fall traveled extensively to Africa the past five years to play a critical role in the NBA’s Basketball without Borders program, an outreach program that helps “create positive social change in the areas of education, health and wellness,” according to the NBA.

There are many goals to accomplish in raising the popularity of basketball and the NBA in Africa, as well as attempting to create positive social change across the continent. Among the ways the NBA will proceed in doing that is by holding its eighth edition of Basketball without Borders Africa in Dakar, Senegal Aug. 2-5, the first time Senegal will host the event. Dikembe Mutombo and a number of NBA and WNBA players will travel there to help run the four-day camp, which will receive 65 of the top 19-and-under basketball players from across Africa.

Fall, a native of Senegal who played center for the basketball team and graduated magna cum laude at the University of the District of Columbia, spoke with SLAMonline by phone to explain how he will direct the NBA’s efforts in Africa.

SLAM: You’ve talked about building an infrastructure in Africa to raise interest in basketball. What’s the key component to  Amadou Fall doing that?
Amadou Fall: It’s real basic — courts. We have to make the game accessible and we have to create opportunities for young people who want to engage in basketball. We take it for granted in the [United] States that basketball is a very accessible sport because there are so many parks and outdoor courts in cities. In Africa, that’s not the case. You see how soccer is popular and played everywhere, but it’s an ‘easy’ game to play, so to speak. So I think here one of the big hurdles for kids who want to play is to have an opportunity to find playing surfaces. We also need help on the expertise side. We need to have teachers of the game, people who know how to initiate young people on the fundamentals of the game.

SLAM: What type of day-to-day expertise will be offered in the form of people who can teach basketball?
AF: This is where having the physical presence of opening up this office is really going to ensure our engagement of doing Basketball without Borders is going to be sustained. We will have a Basketball Operations component. We’ll have regional camps and have a coaching program, where local coaches will be trained to ensure there’s not a big coaching drop-off after Basketball without Borders leaves. One of the reasons for us to really get on the ground right now is that there was a big outcry, especially from the local basketball standpoint and our standpoint, that we come in for three or four days and do this great event and everybody is engaged. Kids are learning, but then we leave and don’t come back the following year. So when we leave, we are training people who are going to be able to coach. We’ll continue to bring experts into markets for events. We’ll do more clinics and create more events throughout the course of the year.

SLAM: Africa and the NBA have an extensive relationship, dating back to native Africans who’ve played in the League and that NBA events such as the Finals have been broadcast at various parts of the continent. What impact has that connection had on your job? Would your job be markedly more difficult if that connection between the continent and the NBA had never been made?
AF: Certainly, we’re going to build on this nearly two decade-long engagement that the NBA has had in Africa. We will really execute our strategy with the support from our partners. You’re right, it’s not like we’re building from scratch. There have been some seeds planted, dating back to 1986 when we did our first television deal in Nigeria. All the work we’ve done with Basketball without Borders, our clinics and our engagement with NBA Cares, all that history is going to help our process overall. So we’re excited about the opportunity to continue to work with our partners and to take our engagement to the next level.

SLAM: Have you discovered how many kids in Africa play basketball?
AF: We don’t have any official data. You rely on the federations. With FIBA being the governing body, each local basketball federation is supposed to report the number of players. But those numbers wouldn’t be accurate indicators of the level of popularity of the game or how many people are engaged in playing basketball. We are excited that we’re in a position where we could impact that number. Through grassroots events, we will put systems in place where we work with the federations to enhance their way of making sure that is available. You look at official numbers and maybe there are 30 million people playing basketball, but I believe the number is much higher than that. Our presence is going to help increase the number.

SLAM: In which countries do you find the most interest in basketball?
AF: Certainly you look at the international results and you think of Angola. They’ve dominated. (Ed note: Angola has won 10 of the last 11 FIBA Africa Championships dating back to 1989, according to Wikipedia.) They are the standard-bearers and it’s a country that has won the most. Senegal has had tremendous success with men and women in terms of championships won. You look at Nigeria; it’s a huge country with over 150 million people. It has tremendous potential. They’ve had some success on the women’s side, but they haven’t won [the FIBA Africa Championship] on the men’s side. But I think with focus and some of the initiatives that are being undertaken in the country, they are a force to be reckoned with. I think the potential is across the board because what’s still lacking the organizational focus in terms of administration, management and really everything that leads to a winning program. You can have all the interest and passion but it has to be managed and channeled and organized. Again, Angola, Senegal and Nigeria and you’ll see countries like Egypt and Cameroon; Cote d’Ivoire is going to the World Championships. (Ed note: Angola and Tunisia will be the other African representatives at the 2010 men’s World Basketball Championships.) You single out some of those countries but we are excited about the potential of the continent as a whole.

Dirk Nowtizki at a 2009 clinic in Africa SLAM: You’ve also noted you want to create platforms for kids to play to make basketball more accessible to them. What are the ways in which you achieve that?
AF: It goes back to the basic infrastructure we talked about. At the same, we have to encourage some form of leagues. In many of these countries, the structure exists in maybe two schools. Growing up, I remember there were regular tournaments at different schools so how do you revise the interscholastic competition at schools and universities? So that will be the focus certainly starting with making sure the playing surfaces exist and encouraging competition at the school level and moving it from there.

SLAM: Is there not enough competition because of a lack of organized leagues?
AF: That’s the case. In so many countries, you don’t have sustained junior leagues. It starts there. You have to teach fundamentals to these young people but at the same time, they must to have an opportunity to play. That’s how you get better. The lack of regular competition at the junior level and other lower levels certainly impact the product you see at the senior level.

SLAM: How are technological platforms prioritized in developing interest across the continent?
AF: It’s a huge opportunity because mobile usage is very prevalent across the continent. Studies have showed there are over 450 million mobile users; this number has jumped from 52 million in 2002 to where it is now. Certainly that is a very important area of opportunity where we’ll engage in and focus on. In terms of specifics of it right now, we can’t go too much into it but it’s an area we’re excited about.

SLAM: Soccer is such a big sport in Africa. Is the sport a competitor to interest in basketball or can there be a symbiotic relationship?
AF: Look, we all grow up playing soccer at some level. In some cases, the game helps [with improving in basketball]. Look at Hakeem [Olajuwan], all his greatness, the balance, the grace he had. Some of these younger guys, whether it’s Luc [Richard Mbah a Moute] or Luol [Deng], they’ve all at some level played futbol. We look at it as symbiotic. There is room in Africa with all the athletic talent and potential that is there. We don’t view soccer as competition at all. In fact, there is mutual admiration.

SLAM: Certain kids might enjoy soccer, but it doesn’t mean they’ll follow professional soccer leagues around the world. Is it a problem if there might be kids who play basketball but have little or no interest in following the NBA?
AF: I think you introduce the game. We work closely with FIBA to build basketball across the globe. Because the NBA being the aspirational brand that we are, certainly I think in any sport or any field, you want to recognize the best. Without being arrogant, we know we represent the highest level in this sport. All players in basketball recognize that. The best players in the world will play in our league. We don’t have to necessarily shove the NBA down everyone’s throats; it’s about the game and then naturally they’ll want to follow our league.

SLAM: David Stern mentioned a “social responsiblity” that the NBA holds in its world-wide initiatives. Is that the case here?
AF: Absolutely. NBA Cares, our league’s social responsibility initiative, has run since 2005 with our sponsors building 26 places to live, learn and play in Africa. Our NBA teams have an engagement in their local communities. We’ll take the same principles onto the international stage, so in Africa it’s no different. For example, in Basketball without Borders we engage in instructions on the basketball side. At the same time, our coaches serve as mentors to our campers in our life-skills seminars. And our players and coaches engage in extensive outreach programs, like when we work with partners like the UN Foundation. We engage in activities to help raise awareness about malaria prevention and offer some relief for communities. We always champion kids engaging in healthy life choices and we promote the importance of education and wellness among young people. Yes, we want to introduce them to basketball but at the same time we see basketball as a tool to promote positive social change and there is no place like Africa where that is more relevant.

SLAM: You have several marketing partners, such as Nike and EA Sports. Can you explain a couple of their endeavors?
AF: For example, our partners in Basketball without Borders, we’ve continued to value their support. We’re looking to engage with adidas and Spalding to get more involved on the continent and in grassroots initiatives. Our marketing partners are also excited about the opportunity because obviously as we stayed engaged and roll out more programs, their business is going to grow along with it.

SLAM: Are there any specific details? Will companies expose their brand on banners at events or by other means?
AF: They’re global partners, so we treat them the same way the NBA does at All-Star Weekend and at our other events. Their presence will be felt.

SLAM: Are those brands all recognized continent-wide?
AF: Oh yes. For example, Panini launched a trading cards program in Angola in March. They’re excited about our office in South Africa. They recognize we will highlight their presence and Spalding and adidas, Nike — they all have a presence. They have regional offices in different parts of the continent. They certainly recognize the opportunity, too.

SLAM: What do you expect to get out of the camp in Senegal in August?  Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh planting a peach tree in Africa in 2009
AF: That’s a testament to our renewed focus with the opening of the office in Johannesburg, to grow the game on the continent. This is the first time Senegal is, I want to use this loosely, a prioritized country. It has a rich history and tradition for basketball. There’s tremendous passion and potential. What we hope to get from it is another very successful event that we’ve had for the past eight years in South Africa. We’ve gotten better every year and certainly with the passion and tradition that Senegal exhibits, we are very confident we’ll have a very successful event again. We’re engaged in that community and expose them to what Basketball without Borders is all about with all the community programs we’ll be involved with. We’ll refurbish and build a couple courts and we will lead a legacy for local communities. It’s just the beginning of our strategy in Africa.

SLAM: Do you expect an annual contingent of NBA and WNBA players to visit Africa and participate in the NBA’s various programs there in future years?
AF: Definitely, Basketball without Borders, we’ll have people for our showcase event. But we’ll have regional events where we’ll have NBA personnel — players, coaches, front office members — helping carry out our mission. Every year, we’ve had tremendous interest from the player side. Last year, we had Dirk [Nowitzki], Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh…year in and year out, we’ve had people who have presented what our league is about. They’ve taught on the court under the bright sun and are doing it with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. That won’t change.

SLAM: What was the determination for Johannesburg serving as the NBA’s Africa headquarters?
AF: There are a number of factors. The World Cup being there this year will mean the eyes of the world will be there. We’ve been going to South Africa with Basketball without Borders for the past eight years and we recognize the opportunity and challenge for us to grow the game there. It’s easy to talk about the lack of ease of travel [through the continent] being in South Africa, but I think there is a big opportunity in this country. There are 50 million people, the economic resources are there, there is an opportunity. There was a professional league that was thriving up to the late ’90s. The league went under not because of lack of interest or funding but it was more conflicts of views from different parties involved. We hope that’s been resolved because the country’s potential to have a strong, professional league as in other places is there. It’s been recognized by our partners who have offices there so we thought it was a good place to start.

SLAM: Are there locations throughout the continent that might serve as future satellite offices?
AF: Absolutely. Right now, our office has a small staff but we expect it to grow. We have locations we’ll continue to monitor and evaluate. We have sites and places we feel are going to be helpful.

SLAM: What’s the first thing on top of your desk when you go to Johannesburg later this month?
AF: Well, definitely we have a plan for the World Cup. We’re leading this initiative to formalize some partnerships and getting ready for Basketball without Borders. Our focus is primarily on that.

SLAM: Is your responsibility with your new role going to cut down on the amount of time you get to play basketball?
AF: [Laughs] Well, you know what, if anything I’ll start playing more. Maybe we’ll get an old-timers league going in Johannesburg. We’ll start a league and we’ll play more, if anything.

SLAM: Are you saying you’re not going to challenge Luc Richard [Mbah a Moute] or Luol [Deng] to a game of one-on-one?
AF: Oh, they know better. I don’t think they want to play me. I was the guy waving the finger before Dikembe. But they are tremendous ambassadors for us and we are very proud of all those guys. We look forward to getting them down in Africa in more often and presenting them to all the young people here.