NBA mak­ing a ‘long-term play’ in Africa

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Basketball - BY KEN MAGUIRE

Ti­mothy Ighoefe is an in­tim­i­dat­ing de­fender at 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds. Still, the Nige­rian knows he must im­prove if his de­ci­sion to play bas­ket­ball in­stead of soc­cer is go­ing to pay off and take him to the NBA.

The 18-year-old Ighoefe has com­mit­ted to play for Patrick Ewing at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity next season, only three years af­ter switch­ing to bas­ket­ball in his home­town of La­gos.

“I need to work on my speed, run­ning down the floor base­line to base­line,” Ighoefe said this week at the un­veil­ing of a new train­ing fa­cil­ity at the NBA’s African academy in Sene­gal. “My left hand, I need to im­prove, to fin­ish with my left hand.”

In other words, there’s po­ten­tial but it’s a work in progress – just like Africa it­self for the NBA.

“It’s a con­ti­nent with over a bil­lion peo­ple, with a fast-growing econ­omy, fast-growing young ur­ban pop­u­la­tion. That’s a good recipe for the NBA long term,” said NBA deputy com­mis­sioner Mark Ta­tum, also in Sene­gal for the train­ing fa­cil­ity open­ing.

The NBA has big plans for Africa. An of­fice was es­tab­lished eight years ago in South Africa. There’s an an­nual ex­hi­bi­tion game fea­tur­ing NBA stars.

Now, the NBA’s top brass says Africa is ready for more. Ta­tum said they’re cre­at­ing a panAfrican league that will in­volve ex­ist­ing pro­fes­sional clubs, and that NBA pre­sea­son and reg­u­larsea­son games will be held on the con­ti­nent “in the next cou­ple of years.”

An­other step is the new train­ing cen­ter, built on the campus of a soc­cer academy in a coastal re­sort town 45 miles south of the Sene­galese cap­i­tal Dakar. Saly, a for­mer Por­tuguese trad­ing post, is now a get­away spot for Dakar’s up­per class and is home to many French peo­ple.

The two par­quet courts were im­ported from the United States. Sim­ply be­ing in­doors and with air con­di­tion­ing prob­a­bly makes it the best bas­ket­ball fa­cil­ity in Sene­gal. A fab­ric, tent-like cov­er­ing is stitched to­gether over steel trusses, and re­pur­posed ship­ping con­tain­ers fac­ing the courts are used for weight train­ing.

The academy is one of seven around the world, with three of them in China. It fea­tures full-time school­ing and train­ing. It can ac­com­mo­date 24 boys selected from Englis­hand French-speak­ing African coun­tries. The NBA holds camps for elite African girls, but there’s no cen­ter for them yet.

“All you have to do here is just fo­cus on bas­ket­ball and school,” Ighoefe said. “You don’t have to be wor­ried about any­thing else. In La­gos, it’s dif­fer­ent. There are a lot of dis­trac­tions.”

The teenage boys be­gin their days with a light work­out at 5:30 a.m. Then it’s break­fast, school, lunch, school, gym. They’re coached by for­mer NBA and NCAA play­ers and have trav­eled to Aus­tralia, Eu­rope and the United States for tour­na­ments.

Amadou Gallo Fall, NBA vice pres­i­dent and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor for Africa, said the NBA is build­ing from the grass­roots, like the Jr. NBA pro­grams ex­pand­ing across the con­ti­nent.

“We are only scratch­ing the sur­face,” said Fall, a Sene­gal na­tive who founded the nearby SEED Academy, which works closely with the NBA’s African op­er­a­tion.

“We are em­pow­er­ing young peo­ple through bas­ket­ball and in the process elite tal­ent is go­ing to come out and get into the NBA, and also feed other leagues across the world, and our fu­ture league on the con­ti­nent.”

This season be­gan with 13 African-born play­ers on NBA ros­ters.

AP file photo

In 2010, young­sters play on a court built by the Char­lotte Bob­cats' Dasagana Diop in Dakar, Sene­gal.

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