For the second straight May, the Basketball Africa League (BAL) crowned a continental champion in Kigali, Rwanda. This time, Egypt’s Al Ahly defeated AS Douanes 80-65 to win the 2023 BAL on May 27.

The 12-team 2023 BAL season featured six nations' domestic league titlists (Angola, Egypt, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Tunisia) and automatic berths for another half dozen (a team apiece from Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa and Uganda) that earned spots via the BAL Qualifying Tournaments throughout the continent.

A year ago, Tunisia's US Monastir beat Angola's Petro de Luanda 83-72 at BK Arena before a full-capacity crowd of 10,000 in the Rwandan capital. That title game put the finishing touches on a successful second season that showcased the league's enormous global reach ? broadcast coverage of games aired in 214 countries and territories in 14 languages.

Two six-team conferences competed in the 2023 campaign before the playoff extravaganza in Rwanda. Staging games in Dakar, Senegal (Sahara Conference, March 11-21), and Cairo, Egypt (Nile Conference, April 26-May 6), before eight teams advanced to Kigali, underscored two ever-presents aspects of the fledgling league's long-term strategy: planting the seeds for growth and bolstering its popularity.

"We want the BAL to be a Pan-Africa product, and so as we go forward, we're also going to be looking at other potential markets," NBA Africa CEO Victor Williams said in a May interview with Legends Magazine.

The objective, he said, "is to spread it around the continent and make something that all Africans can identify with."

Indeed, the BAL's talent pool encompasses not just Africa but the world. The 156 players on the 12 teams represented 22 countries in Africa, Europe, Oceania and North America, according to a BAL news release published on May 18.

Recent conversations with Williams and BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall shed light on the novel league's ambitious goals and dedication to promoting the sport and developing basketball talent in Africa.

Williams and Fall exude enthusiasm for the BAL's mission to be recognized as a world-class league with a thriving fan base and a flourishing economy. 

And enthusiasm for the BAL shared by some of the sport's biggest influencers adds credibility and a promotional boon throughout Africa and elsewhere. For example, three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade's picture accompanied numerous articles in May, showing him rooting for his son Zaire's BAL team, the Cape Town Tigers. Wade, who has 9.5 million Twitter followers, also retweeted a video of him hugging his son in Cairo during the Nile Conference.

Adding some electric buzz in the run-up to the BAL championship game, the league's official Twitter account shared a short video of ex-NBA standouts Luol Deng and Joakim Noah playing one-on-one in Kigai. Call it a conversation starter and plenty of free publicity.

Player development

There's a vital emphasis on player development in building the league. For instance, each team is required to have two under-22 players on its roster, including one spot filled by a player from the NBA Africa Academy, which opened in 2017 in Saly, Senegal.

Opportunities in the BAL provide valuable pro experience for U-22 players. And at the same time, it's about "identifying promising prospects we think can play at the NBA level and grooming them with that in mind," said Williams, a corporate and investment banking executive for five years for Standard Bank Group's Africa Regions before joining the NBA in 2020.

Connected to this objective is the BAL Elevate program, which started in 2022. How does it work? Each of the 12 teams selects one player in the BAL Elevate Draft from the aforementioned academy. The second annual draft took place on Feb. 24, several weeks before the 2023 season.

A few days after the draft, Fall commented on the positive impact of the BAL Elevate players in 2022.

“The inaugural group of BAL Elevate players who joined our league from NBA Academy Africa last season not only showcased their talent and potential but also contributed greatly to the improved play in season two,” Fall said, according to a BAL news release. “We have received terrific feedback from the teams and coaches who worked with the players, some of whom went on to sign with NBA G League Ignite or commit to NCAA Division I schools in the U.S.”

Overall assessment of the BAL's growth and development

Asked to assess the BAL's growth from its inception to May 2023, its overall development in all facets of operations and the quality of play, Williams and Fall shared detailed viewpoints and concrete examples.

Although the inaugural season was postponed from 2020 to '21 due to the pandemic, BAL leaders were able to glean helpful information from the NBA, WNBA and NBA G League about setting up and operating a tournament in a bubble.

Indeed, the health of all players and everyone else in the bubble was the top priority for the 2021 campaign. No players tested positive for COVID-19 inside the bubble.

"We wanted to create a spectacle that moved the broadcast experience to a new level, where people would look at that and say, 'Wow, that's an amazing tournament that's being put on in Africa,'" Williams stated.

"We also wanted to begin to build the competitive dynamic of getting the teams playing against each other and getting all of them into that environment and helping them to understand what the BAL was and how it worked," he continued. "And I think we succeeded really well on all those counts."

Williams explained that the league took a huge step in season two by shifting from the bubble to a "longer-term direction that we always envisioned."

This meant staging games in two conferences (Sahara and Nile) before holding the playoffs in Kigali.

By all accounts, having fans in the stands for the first time marked another important step for the league.

Fall, who worked as the Dallas Mavericks' director of scouting (2001-05) before becoming director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs (2005-09), shed light on the overall growth of the league, starting at what he called "ground zero," in the pandemic.

"It's a huge undertaking," Fall told Legends Magazine. "The good news is we are building on the foundation of many decades of work that the NBA has engaged on the continent. It's focusing on the grassroots; all the work has been done before. The league is really the culmination of all the effort."

Recognizing how important this commitment was and continues to be for the NBA (it established its first NBA Africa office in Johannesburg in 2010) and its partners in Africa, Fall continued by saying, "Many decades of focusing on grassroots engagement on the continent, building relationships, working with FIBA and the federations to set up a grassroots infrastructure first, and now the league came about."

In summing up the state of the BAL, Fall pointed to two key factors to highlight his analysis, saying the on-court product and the culture of basketball have both improved.

"As a result," he commented, "we are finding that there is interest not only in Africa but around the world because we are fortunate to have a very strong broadcast footprint in over 200 countries … and we are working very hard to attract world-class partners."

The Business of the BAL

In July 2021, former U.S. President Barack Obama became a strategic partner with a minority equity stake in the league.

"The NBA has always been a great ambassador for the United States ? using the game to create deeper connections around the world, and in Africa, basketball has the power to promote opportunity, wellness, equality and empowerment across the continent," Obama said in a statement. "By investing in communities, promoting gender equality and cultivating the love of the game of basketball, I believe that NBA Africa can make a difference for so many of Africa's young people."

Like Obama, several former NBA players have also invested in the league, including Dikembe Mutombo, Grant Hill, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Ian Mahinmi and Junior Bridgeman. (Hill is a co-owner of the Atlanta Hawks.)

"This investment opportunity allows them to build even stronger ties with NBA Africa and our activities on the ground," Williams said.

On a related point, Williams mentioned that the BAL has held talks with Bridgeman's business associates, who offered helpful guidance. The former NBA guard (1975-87) became an ultra-successful entrepreneur after his playing days, becoming the owner of a business empire that included more than 250 Wendy's and 120 Chili's restaurants.

Investors with global recognition, like Mutombo and Hill, who received a combined 15 NBA All-Star selections, add credibility and gravitas to the BAL as a brand. As a result, Nike, Jordan Brand, Wilson, Visit Rwanda and Hennessy are among the league's world-class partners.

Legends Magazine explored Deng's commitment to making a positive societal impact throughout basketball in a previous edition ("A Lifetime of Philanthropy and Efforts to Help His Native South Sudan"). The BAL ambassador's love for the game and for helping people connect throughout Africa, especially in South Sudan, is genuine. Working as the president of the South Sudan Basketball Federation puts him in the spotlight, but also in a position to be a force for change, spearheading efforts to refurbish gyms and develop and grow the game in Africa.

“I really had a passion and a vision that I can change what people think about South Sudan through sports,” Deng said in the Legends profile.

Future aspirations

Williams and Fall both spelled it out quite clearly that NBA Africa and BAL leaders support expansion for the new league in the future.

The question isn't if but when and where expansion will take place and how it will alter the competition.

Looking back on the BAL's establishment, Fall noted that starting with 12 teams seemed about right with the goal to "build a model, perfect it and then in due course expand."

Would that mean two more teams? Four more? Six?

"We are looking at all possibilities. Obviously, we'll get there gradually," said Fall, who previously served as NBA Africa's vice president and managing director. "As I say, we don't want to skip steps. We are very deliberate in terms of how we want to expand. Obviously, we have to stabilize and show long-term sustainability, but it's no question that the number of teams will increase.

"There is tremendous demand and pressure to expand, but we have to be disciplined and really stay the course and focus on perfecting this model."

One of the focal points of this quest to strive for perfection is waiting for the number of world-class basketball facilities to increase in Africa. The BAL is committed to playing in top venues, Fall added.

Setting standards and creating benchmarks

Sparking growing interest among fans, new rivalries have been established in the BAL, and all of the games in the first three seasons share a common theme: Getting better is a constant focus.

Or as Fall put it: "It's really about focusing on ways to always improve the quality of basketball on the court."

This target isn't just for the players. The BAL employs one NBA G League referee in each three-person crew, along with two refs from Africa. Referees with experience in AfroBasket and FIBA international basketball competitions are among those who've officiated BAL games.

All of the refs receive feedback and training from the NBA. Monty McCutchen, the NBA's head of referee development and training, was instrumental in working with the BAL to establish officiating standards. In addition, former NBA ref Greg Dandridge led BAL referee operations in 2023.

"They are spending a lot of time on talent development," Fall noted, praising the efforts of McCutchen and Dandridge.

In sizing up the various levels of management overseeing pro teams throughout Africa, Fall referred to "different degrees of organizational capacity." This is why a BAL online leadership series started in 2020, when the inaugural season was postponed, proved to be helpful for virtual attendees.

Teams that played in BAL qualifiers were invited to participate via Zoom in this biweekly program with "some of the best minds in basketball," Fall recalled before rattling off a slew of names, including NBA coaches (Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Mike Brown, Dwane Casey) and basketball operations executives (R.C. Buford and Masai Ujiri) and PR and marketing executives to discuss their specialized areas of work. Moreover, the late Houston Rockets scout Brent "B.J." Johnson and a pair of current global scouting execs, Luca Desta (now with the Utah Jazz) and Patrick Engelbrecht (Toronto Raptors), took part in past Zoom seminars.

In 2022, in-person events also became a part of the leadership series, with former Atlanta Hawks bench boss Lloyd Pierce conducting a coaching clinic in Kigali. Clinics also took place in Cairo this May.

"Ultimately, that capacity-building exercise we feel is going to add value to all the teams," Fall declared, underscoring the NBA's involvement with the BAL is a total commitment.

So what's the ultimate ambition of the BAL?

"Our ambition is to be the best professional basketball league outside of the U.S.," Fall concluded without hesitation.