The Basketball Africa League is bigger than J. Cole – The Undefeated
Equity in sport took a big step forward on Sunday when the Basketball Africa League played its first game in Kigali, Rwanda. For a continent that has supplied so many of the world’s greatest players, whether directly (Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria, Joel Embiid from Cameroon) or indirectly (all the other black athletes whose ancestors survived the slave ships), this moment has lasted for centuries.
Wait, you want to hear from J. Cole, don’t you? The rapper with the hot new album that signed with the Rwanda Patriots franchise from BAL? The guy who play pickup with NBA stars and almost snuck into his own dunk in the 2019 NBA Slam Dunk Contest? What’s up with Cole?
Nah, not yet. We will find him later. Cole played well in the kickoff match, but making it the centerpiece would be a mistake. Disrespectful, even. Based on Cole’s humble demeanor on the pitch on Sunday – and you can tell a lot about a person by the way they hoop – I don’t think he would want it all to be about him. It should be about the motherland, how its resources have historically been stripped and exported, and how its new league can change that narrative and help the continent grow.
Good then. Let’s talk about the BAL.
Slaves were not the only African natural resource that enriched the rest of the world. Diamonds, minerals, petroleum, metals and more were systematically mined by European and American colonial powers. National borders were drawn by outsiders who created genocidal conflicts by ignoring tribal affiliations. Today, China exerts its influence on crochet africa on its funding. And beyond individual nations, an immoral system of multinational investors and bankers continues to prevail. plunder the continent.
The same pattern applies to basketball talent. When Olajuwon arrived at the University of Houston in 1980, African players were a novelty. Now they’re a major feature of the game, with the hoop’s international industrial complex mining great African athletes as ruthlessly as South Africa mines diamonds.
Africans are not mere victims in all of this, of course. Some African leaders have sold their people the same way African middlemen sell players to American colleges. And there are opportunities for African individuals in these transactions, whether with foreign companies or foreign basketball leagues. It is normal that a Dikembe Mutombo or a Pascal Siakam wants to get out of an American university or play basketball at the highest level in the world.
But the definition of exploitation does not get equal value in return. No place on Earth has been more exploited than Africa.
This is why the BAL, which is funded by the NBA and the International Basketball Federation, is important. With 12 teams, from nations of Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Egypt, Madagascar, Mali, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia, it is the first league collaboration for the NBA outside of North America.
The NBA doesn’t need the BAL to identify the next Serge Ibaka or OG Anunoby – that pipeline is already established. BAL is an opportunity to develop the game in Africa and offer opportunities to a larger pool of non-superstars players. It will create the kind of sports infrastructure, with league-related careers and businesses, that can change lives and regions. It’s a way for the NBA – whose billions in revenue have been largely generated by the sons of Africa – to give back.
“This is a combination of decades of work by many people to grow the game on the continent not only on the global stage, but also to seek to build an ecosystem right here on the continent,” BAL president Amadou Fall told Marc. Spears of the Unconquered.
In the inaugural season which started on Sunday, the teams play 26 games in a bubble-shaped setup at the Kigali Arena. Top players include former NBA player Ben Uzoh and former McDonald’s All American Myck Kabongo. There are nine former NBA G league players and 21 have played Division I college basketball.
The Rwanda Patriots beat Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers 83-60 on Sunday. The game was very different from an American competition, in a way that shows why more investment in African basketball is needed.
Uzoh, who plays for Nigeria, was the only player with what American fans would recognize as a typical handful. I haven’t seen any other player try to create from dribbling. Crossovers, hesis and fadeaways that we take for granted were rare. The form on a lot of jumps was not pretty. I only saw a step back.
Almost all Africans who make up the NBA are great men. One of the reasons is that, compared to America, basketball resources are much more scarce in Africa, from the courts to sneakers to the shoes to play on. African players do not have the same level of opportunity to develop and hone their skills, so smaller players are not as trivialized as their older ones. The skills gap was evident on Sunday. But that was more than made up for by heart, passion, athleticism and the sheer pride of playing in a new arena on this historic day.
Jermaine Cole was presented as a reserve at the start of the game. He kept it low-key, with no additional gestures or poses. Cole’s long dreadlocks drew enough attention to himself – one striking difference between BAL and your average American set was the lack of hair on African dudes.
Cole is 36, is around 6ft 4in, with a wet 3-point shot and enough play to return in the day to St. John’s before becoming a critically and commercially acclaimed rap star. He’s serious about his game, trains every day, and in my opinion is up there with Master P as the rapper with the most hoop games. Cole plays the role of 2 guards for the Patriots. The title of his new album, Off-season, refers to the common theme of hoopers and rappers both working to perfect their craft before the bright lights come on. Then when you step into that lot or stage, you’re all set.
Cole was ready. Wearing No.15, he registered with about five minutes left in the first quarter and the Patriots lagging behind. All he did was play his position: stay on the 3-point line, run on the ground, keep his man. The defense didn’t give him any open glances, and he didn’t force any. I’ve seen a lot of attention-junked rap stars take the field and do too much. Cole played humbly.
His first shot came at the end of the quarter, when he rushed down the field at the break and fended off a teammate’s miss. He was on the bench for the start of the second quarter, then came back six minutes from the end. It was easy to forget that he was on the pitch. When the Rivers Hoopers were called up for a technical foul, Cole hit the free throw.
In the second half, when the Patriots had a lead of more than 20 points, Cole stayed on the field. As any bench player knows, now is the time to go for yours. They made a few transfers for Cole, but his man got over the pick and he didn’t force the shot. He got a rebound, pushed it to the top and missed a contested layup. Caught a pass at the foul line, could have shot but dropped a smooth pass to a big hit. Missed an assist at the break, but recovered to get the assists. Airballed a 3. Turnover, then another turnover trying to throw it in the post. He checked for good with 4:34 left.
Let’s face it: Cole has game. It deserves its place on the list. Unless you’re a pro or Division I player, he would probably give you that field job. But on this significant day for African basketball, he was simply Jermaine Cole, a man who understood his place in history.