Basketball Africa League serves dual purpose: point of pride and potential stepping stone

The hardwood of BK Arena in Kigali, Rwanda, is sprayed a bright green and yellow. The sound of horns permeates the arena. Angolan and Tunisian flags drape over the first row of seats.

This is the scene on the night of May 28, as US Monastir of Tunisia and Petro de Luanda of Angola take the floor for the Basketball Africa League finals. Soon, 10,000 fans will rise from their seats as the back-and-forth game nears its conclusion. US Monastir eventually secures the championship with an 83-72 win, completing a second season with the franchise’s first BAL title.

The BAL is the only league outside of North America to be affiliated with the NBA. Founded in February 2019, the BAL is a one-of-a-kind partnership between the NBA and FIBA that consists of 12 club teams from across the continent. The inaugural season was scheduled for March 2020 but was postponed until May 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and relocated to a bubble environment in Kigali. In season two, the BAL expanded into three cities — Dakar, Senegal; Cairo, Egypt; and Kigali — had a round-robin group stage that divided into two conferences of six, then proceeded to a single-elimination playoff format.

So far, the BAL has begun to capture the interest of the local and global markets. For the playoffs, crowds at the BK Arena in Rwanda were near full capacity (10,000) and, according to the league, there were more than 400 million fan engagements on online platforms.

The BAL hopes to position itself as fulfilling a dual purpose. For homegrown players from African countries, it’s a chance to grow the game throughout the continent. For basketball talent across the world, the league aims to be a hotbed for those to get close to their ultimate aspiration to play in the NBA.

That talent includes Michael Dixon Jr., the BAL postseason’s standout player. The 31-year-old guard arrived at US Monastir three months earlier, marking his fourth team and country since July 2021.

“Just to play basketball on one of the biggest continents in the world, it was something I wanted to be a part of,” Dixon told The Athletic.

Now, he’s a BAL champion and Hakeem Olajuwon MVP Award winner, having punctuated his breakout playoff performance with 21 points in the title game. Overall, Dixon tallied 16.5 points and 4.1 assists per game during US Monastir’s five-game group stage and averaged 21.3 points during the playoffs.

“Michael took over,” US Monastir coach Miodrag Perišić said. “He deserves this. He worked very hard.”

After going undrafted in 2014 following a four-year college career at Missouri and Memphis, Dixon embarked on a continental journey to continue his basketball career. From 2014 to 2020, Dixon bounced around to Lithuania, Czech Republic, Greece, France, Turkey, Israel, Italy and Georgia. The plan at the start of 2021 was to play for a Romanian pro team, but then other pressing priorities came up. His wife, Sophia, was experiencing complications with the birth of their second child, so Dixon returned to Athens, Greece, where he’s lived since 2016-17. His salary in Romania was no longer enough to support his family.

But that didn’t leave Dixon with many playing options. In July 2021, Dixon signed with Wilki Morskie Szczecin of the PLK, Poland’s highest-tier basketball league. When he showed up at training camp, the team only had eight players. He left Poland without playing a game.

“It was a bad situation,” Dixon said.

Dixon traveled to play for teams in Qatar, but the quality of basketball didn’t match his standards. He then signed for a trial period with Maccabi Haifa, which had just been relegated to Israel’s second tier, but the team didn’t keep him after training camp. On the wrong side of 30, Dixon pondered if he’d get another chance to play in a competitive league on a big stage.

Then US Monastir, Tunisia’s representative in the Basketball Africa League, called in February. Dixon remembers watching US Monastir lose to Egypt’s Zamalek in the BAL’s inaugural season in 2021, but otherwise didn’t know much about them.

“Basketball has taken me places I’ve never even imagined,” Dixon said. “If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be here playing it.”

But Tunisia? That was a new one even for him. Still, on Feb. 8, 2022, Dixon signed with US Monastir. The experience he had thereafter changed his basketball life.

Immediately, Dixon’s new teammates welcomed him. They presented Dixon with a cake, took photos with one another and exchanged introductions. Then, it was time to get to work. The team had a common goal — to win the BAL championship after losing in the finals last year.

“We saw the potential we could have,” Dixon said. “As we’re making this journey, we knew we had to finish this off. Otherwise, it’s a failure.”

The dedication that impressed Dixon has also made its mark on other longtime pros who have found homes in the BAL.

The list includes D.J. Strawberry — the son of Major League Baseball player Darryl Strawberry — who just finished his first year as a starting guard for Zamalek. Like Dixon, the younger Strawberry is a hoops nomad. The onetime University of Maryland standout was selected No. 59 in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns, spent three years playing in the NBA Developmental League, then jumped overseas to play in Lithuania, Croatia, France, Turkey, Greece and Spain. But he agrees the BAL is different.

“Most of my career was in EuroCup or EuroLeague. And this league [BAL] is way more physical than any league I’ve played.” Strawberry said.

Strawberry is one of three former NBA players to compete in the BAL during the 2022 season. Jamel Artis, who plays for South Africa’s Cape Town Tigers, last played for the Orlando Magic in 2018. Ike Diogu, another Zamalek player, went No. 9 in the 2005 NBA Draft to the Golden State Warriors and last played in the NBA in 2011.

Thirteen other players in the BAL also competed in the now-NBA G League at some point in their careers. One of them is Ater James Majok from South Sudan, the forward/center for US Monastir, who went No. 58 in the 2011 NBA Draft. Though Majok is trying not to look too far ahead, he can’t help but appreciate BAL’s place in Africa’s sporting landscape.

“There’s an excitement walking out onto the court, playing in the same arena as basketball legends of Africa,” Majok said. “I think about South Sudan. I think about US Monastir. When you carry the weight of two countries, you don’t want to let anybody down.

Many other African-born players like Majok see the impact of staying to grow the game of basketball in the continent. Anas Mahmoud, born in Giza, Egypt, plays for Zamalek. He played college basketball for Louisville from 2014 to 2018. After going undrafted, Mahmoud signed his first professional contract with Zamalek in 2018. In May, Zamalek extended Mahmoud for two more years, keeping the Egyptian center until 2024.

“If you’re a good player, you don’t have to leave Africa to go play in Europe because we are getting a competitive league here,” Mahmoud said.

That’s music to the ears of BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall, a former front-office executive with the Dallas Mavericks. He stressed the need to have many different types of global players competing in the BAL alongside developing young talent.

“It is important to bring elite talent from around the world, but it is even more important to attract local heroes,” Fall said. “Talented African players who before the advent of the BAL, they will all need to get out of the continent because there were no opportunities to play and monetize a living playing basketball at a high level.”

The BAL also hopes to be a pathway for top prospects looking for valuable experience before going to play in North America. For its second season, the BAL launched a program called “BAL Elevate.” It allows one young prospect from the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal to join each of the 12 BAL teams.

“You don’t believe that some of these kids are 15 or 16 years old,” Strawberry said. “They play like grown men.”

One of those 12 prospects is 16-year-old Ulrich Chomche, a Cameroonian who played for Cameroon FAP this year. Chomche is one of the standout prospects in the NBA Academy Africa, according to Troy Justice, head of international basketball development at the NBA.

Chomche dreams of playing in the NBA and competing against some of his favorite players like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo and fellow Cameroon native Joel Embiid. Most American 16-year-olds are playing high school and/or AAU basketball. Chomche, on the other hand, gets to play against grown men in the BAL. Not only is he learning from his teammates, but players from other teams also contribute to his development. When Cameroon FAP played Zamalek, Chomche received a suggestion from one of the opposing players on how to go up to the basket with his right hand.

“They are like big brothers to me,” Chomche said.

Guinean-born forward Mohamed Keita, who recently committed to St. John’s in the NCAA, is another NBA Academy Africa player making an impact. In a playoff game against Zamalek, with NBA and college scouts watching in-person and virtually, Keita put up 12 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots.

“It allows them to learn, to grow, to contribute, to compete,” Justice said. “Whenever you are competing against someone older than you, it’s on-the-job learning. It is the opportunity to expand your game and to understand what you need to work on after the game. It provides clarity for a young player trying to develop.”

Performances like those from teenagers illuminate the pathway between the NBA Academy Africa and the BAL. The NBA’s strategy for recruiting global talent in Africa starts at the grassroots. Boys and girls 16 years or under participate in Jr. NBA programming, now available in 15 different African countries. Then they progress to Basketball Without Borders, the instructional basketball camp started in 2003, with more than 1,400 participants from 30 African countries (two prominent camp alumni include Embiid and Toronto Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam). In 2018, the NBA Academy Africa opened in Saly, Senegal. It features two indoor basketball courts, serving as the training epicenter for African basketball prospects ages 14 to 18.

Players in Africa who participate in clinics, camps or the Academy now have an attainable high point to reach for professional basketball in the continent. The BAL is at “the top of the pyramid,” according to Victor Williams, the CEO of NBA Africa.

“Our vision is for this to become one of the most successful leagues in the world,” Williams said.

From there, the players’ basketball dreams are boundless. Some, like Dixon and Strawberry, use the BAL to improve their prospects elsewhere. But not all players want to travel to North America. Many, like Majok, see the potential of what staying in Africa can do for the BAL.

“It’s telling young African players that we’re back in Africa to help develop the BAL,” Majok said. “It’s a good legacy to leave.”

That legacy certainly felt tangible to Dixon when he stood at center court waiting for tipoff of US Monastir’s quarterfinal BAL playoff game against Cape Town Tigers. As he took in the blaring loud music blaring and cheering fans, he noticed a familiar face in the crowd: Joakim Noah, the former Florida Gator and NBA All-Star for the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks who is one of several investors who helped spearhead NBA Africa.

Dixon has been a fan of Noah dating back to high school, having fondly remembered idolizing Noah when he won back-to-back national championships for the Gators. Now, Noah is Dixon’s biggest fan in Rwanda. Whenever Dixon made a basket, he’d look and see Noah cheering for him. When Dixon caught up with Noah after the championship game, the former NBA player showered the US Monastir star with “M-V-P!” chants.

“It was a priceless moment,” Dixon said. “You never know where basketball could take you.”

There are still many challenges ahead, both for Dixon’s hoops odyssey and the BAL’s quest to become one of the premier basketball leagues in the world. But in that moment, everyone, from players to investors to fans, saw the vision.

(Top photo of Michael Dixon against Petro de Luanda: Pape Emir / NBAE via Getty Images)

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