The first game of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) tips off on Sunday in Rwanda, and fans of the sport say they hope the new league, and playing host to the games, will shine a spotlight on African players and help promote the sport in Africa.
Competition was to have begun last year but was put off in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. On Sunday, finally, Rwanda's Patriots will face off against Nigeria’s Rivers Hoopers at Kigali Arena, which will host all the games.
Some Rwandan basketball supporters lament that required coronavirus testing will prevent them from being able to attend the games at Kigali Arena. But many will be cheering from a safe distance.
Arnold Nkusi, 21, plays for the Rwandan military-funded APF, or Army Patriotic Front Club. A former student in the U.S. state of Texas, he said he thinks the BAL is "a great step for African teams. They can show how they are good in their talent."
"In the past years," he said, "we haven’t had time to, like, to show our potential and everything. So now it is a good opportunity, especially that it is happening in Rwanda. Now our players will be looked at so we can have scouts and agents coming in to watch our players play and have opportunities to play abroad.”
The BAL is a partnership of the U.S. National Basketball Association and the Geneva-based International Basketball Federation (FIBA). It's the NBA's first effort to launch a league outside North America.
Rwandan basketball emerged only in the last couple decades, but the national team has qualified a few times for the FIBA AfroBasket, another continent-wide tournament.
Stratton Ahimana, president of Rwanda’s Association of Basketball Umpires and a member of the technical committee in Rwanda’s Basketball Federation, said the umpires he leads needed to attend to see the level of officiating at this tournament so they can share knowledge and experience with their colleagues.
Cliff Owor, head coach of the APF club, said Rwandan and other African teams that compete in this league will benefit a lot, especially coaches and players who will gain experience through these games. Although it comes amid COVID-19 and a difficult period, he said, the experience they will gain is priceless.
VOA will simulcast BAL games in English and French and provide play-by-play coverage in Bambara, Kinyarwanda, Wolof and Portuguese.