NBA making a ‘long-term play’ in Africa
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.
In 2010, youngsters play on a court built by the Charlotte Bobcats' Dasagana Diop in Dakar, Senegal.