The inaugural 12-team Basketball Africa League (BAL) tipped off in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 16, more than a year after it was scheduled to start, and hoops fans have plenty to learn about Africa's premier domestic sides.
The BAL was initially scheduled to start on March 13, 2020 in Dakar, Senegal, but COVID-19 postponed the continent-wide event. The whole tournament was moved to a bubble in Kigali [fans were later allowed to watch in the arena in limited numbers] and the regular season was changed to a group stage format.
Angola's Petro de Luanda, Egypt's Zamalek, Morocco's AS Salé, Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers, Senegal's AS Douanes and Tunisia's US Monastir qualified directly as national champions.
They were joined in the BAL by hosts Patriots, Gendarmerie Nationale Basketball Club (GNBC) and Ferroviário de Maputo from the East Division of qualifying, as well as the West Division's GS Pétroliers, AS Police and Forces Armées et Police Basketball (FAP).
Group stage results:
May 16 - Rivers Hoopers 60-83 Patriots
May 24 - Zamalek 97-64 GSP
Full team rosters: HERE
Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers have never won an African title, and were one of the least experienced sides going into the Basketball Africa League, but they were still tipped to make a deep run, and even maybe win the tournament.
In the end, neither of those things happened. Instead, a side graced with the tournament's most experienced NBA player in Ben Uzoh, and featuring a number of international players, never got out the gate and Zamalek won the baobab-shaped trophy.
The inaugural Basketball Africa League came to an end on Sunday, with Zamalek of Egypt upsetting Tunisia's US Monastir, who had been unbeaten till then, to be crowned champions in Kigali.
Thus ended two packed weeks of action in a shortened tournament, which had been postponed and re-organised in order to accommodate COVID-19 safety concerns.
Here are some numerical reminders of the tournament.
The NBA is, ultimately, the goal for young men who hoop around the world. But not everyone lucks out, and for every Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, or Joel Embiid who breaks out into stardom, there are countless unknowns who don't.
These players ultimately come to a point where they are faced with the tough choice of either continuing to play the sport they love, or jettisoning it for a career that offers more financial security.
Mugabe, 33, is one of those who has managed to find a balance between those options, as an accountant by day, and a hooper by night.
Rapper J. Cole of the Rwanda Patriots BBC has completed his contractual obligation to the Basketball Africa League and has departed from Rwanda because of a "family obligation," a source told ESPN's The Undefeated.
Jermaine Cole had 5 points, 3 assists and 5 rebounds in 45 minutes of three preliminary games. The expectation was that the Grammy Award-winning rapper would play in three to six games. The Patriots BBC play Mozambique's Ferroviario de Maputo in the playoff quarterfinals on Thursday.
AS Sale guard Terrell Stoglin has decried the presence of rapper J. Cole at the Basketball Africa League (BAL), telling ESPN that the musician's time on the court is "disrespectful" to those who worked hard for years to get this chance.
Despite the commercial value and media attention that Cole has brought to the NBA-affiliated BAL, the rapper's late inclusion on the Patriots' roster has left a bitter taste in the mouth of the former Maryland player.
Despite years of injury setbacks since he burst onto the scene at the Texas Longhorns, Patriots BBC star Prince Ibeh is shining at the Basketball Africa League (BAL) and fighting for a long-awaited NBA breakthrough.
Ibeh, who was at Texas from 2012 to 2016, still has time on his side, but he had to overcome injury setbacks, like tearing his quadricep during the pre-draft process, which likely denied him the privilege of playing in the NBA.
He went on to play in the NBA G-League, as well as in Japan, the Philippines, Germany, and most recently back in England with the Plymouth Raiders.
However, the London-born Rwanda international feels he can make it in the world's premier league.
US Monastir's Ater Majok was only five years old when his family fled Sudan during its second civil war, and is using the Basketball Africa League as a continental homecoming of sorts.
The power forward, who was raised in Australia but represents Lebanon internationally [he was given citizenship for his performances with Homenetmen Beirut], initially had no intention of an African return for this tournament.
Instead, the former LA Lakers draftee's heart was set on going back to China, where he has played for the Beijing Eastern Bucks, Luoyang Zhonghe, and Shaanxi Xinda.
However, Monastir pursued him relentlessly prior to the original BAL date of March 2020, and his head was eventually turned by their persistence.
Kenya men's national team coach Liz Mills has spent the better part of the last decade coaching basketball in Africa and has detailed, first-hand knowledge of players and teams featuring in the Basketball Africa League [BAL].
It is knowledge that comes from traversing the continent, working with clubs, varsities, and national teams in Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Cameroon, Rwanda, and Kenya, both as a coach and as a scout, with her game-changing use of data and analytics.
Before the COVID-19 suspension of the BAL last year, Mills, who had previously worked as a coach with Rwanda's Patriots Basketball Club, was due to take up a position with one of the BAL teams [not the Patriots].
The Australian decided against it in the end, and eventually led Kenya to Afrobasket qualification instead, one of the first instances of a woman leading a men's national team to a major tournament.
Not many have the insight that Mills has into the African game and she offers ESPN a peek into what the BAL might throw up as it continues in Kigali till the Final on May 30.
Equity in sports took a huge step forward Sunday when the Basketball Africa League played its first game in Kigali, Rwanda. For a continent that has provided so many of the world's greatest players, either directly (Hakeem Olajuwon of Nigeria, Joel Embiid of Cameroon) or indirectly (every other Black athlete whose ancestors survived the slave ships), this moment was centuries in the making.
Wait - you want to hear about J. Cole, right? The rapper with the hot new album who signed with the BAL's Rwanda Patriots franchise? The dude who plays pickup with NBA stars and almost sneaked in his own dunk at the 2019 NBA slam dunk contest? Whatup with Cole?
Nah, not yet. We'll get to him later. Cole played fine in the kickoff game, but to make him the centerpiece would be wrong.
On Feb. 16, 2019, Amadou Fall proudly stood on a stage with Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Dikembe Mutombo, NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri and numerous other basketball dignitaries from the NBA, WNBA and the world as the Basketball Africa League (BAL) was announced.
The initial expectation was that the inaugural BAL season was going to be played in seven African cities beginning in 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic delayed those plans.
On Sunday, the BAL will finally tip off when the Nigeria Rivers Hoopers face the Kigali Patriots BBC in Kigali, Rwanda. For Fall, the BAL president, it will be emotional.
Rivers Hoopers star signing Robinson Odoch Opong will be representing no less than four countries at the Basketball Africa League, which tips off on May 16 in Kigali, Rwanda.
Opong, who was all set to lead Uganda to Afrobasket qualification when their run was cut short, is hoping to use his presence at the Basketball Africa League to represent that country, which he was neither born nor raised in, regardless.
This February, five members of the Silverbacks team tested positive for COVID-19, forcing FIBA into an abrupt suspension of the rest of their games.
US Monastir's Ater Majok has paid tribute to former Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant ahead of the Basketball Africa League, telling ESPN that Bryant inspired his career after meeting Majok in high school for the first time.
According to Majok, who would go on to be drafted by the Lakers in 2011, the pair met when Majok attended a youth camp which Kobe hosted in Los Angeles, and the Sudanese-Australian promised the superstar that they would one day share a court.
Majok, who is currently preparing for the inaugural BAL that starts on May 16, told ESPN: "I remember when I first got drafted, on draft night, I was in Washington DC.
"Mitch Kupchak, the general manager at the time, called me. He said, 'Congratulations, you're a Laker. You worked hard for it.' The first thing I remember saying was, 'Tell Kobe that I kept my word.'"
With the Basketball Africa League set to tip off on Sunday for its inaugural season, 2017 FIBA Africa Champions Cup winners AS Sale have been tipped as one of the favourites, but their coach is aiming lower.
Said El Bouzidi is uncertain that his Morocco-based team can win the NBA-affiliated event, and has set a more realistic goal of reaching the quarterfinals as success for his side, who not only won the African title in 2017, but made it all the way to the Final the next year.
"For me, with the problems that are being experienced in Moroccan basketball [the league was suspended for two years] and the departure of some key elements of the team I think we can make maybe the quarter-finals," he told ESPN.
Zamalek's football team may have lost the most recent final of the CAF Champions League to Al Ahly, but the inaugural edition of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) offers them a shot at continental supremacy in a different sporting code.
The winners of the 1992 FIBA Africa Champions Cup qualified for the BAL by winning the 2018/19 Egyptian Super League, ending a 12-year drought. They have been drawn into Group C along with AS Douanes, Ferroviário de Maputo and GS Pétroliers.
According to Tarek Said Sallman, the director of their basketball operations and a former player for the club, they head into the BAL, which tips off on May 16 on ESPN, believing that they have a genuine chance of winning the tournament.
U.S. rapper J. Cole is a busy man these days. Not only does he have a new album release on the horizon, he's now seemingly putting down the mic and picking up a basketball.
News filtered through on Monday of the musician being on the brink of signing a deal with Rwanda-based Patriots BBC, a team that will be playing in the all-new Basketball Africa League.
Cole, 36, arrived in Rwanda this week and is currently quarantining, per The Undefeated. The tournament begins on Saturday May 16, with the Patriots taking on Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers, and it's expected that Cole will feature in some capacity.
As if the hype wasn't already enough surrounding the start of the new NBA-affiliated league, the addition of a celebrity to the roster of the home side has raised the question of whether he's legit when it comes to keeping up with pro athletes.
While Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers are still trying to navigate the sea of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, head coach Ogoh Odaudu told ESPN that the Basketball Africa League's delay was a 'blessing in disguise'.
As a result of the long delay, the Hoopers' training schedules and protocols were changed, the team had to pivot away from the players they initially wanted to fill their Foreign Player quota, and had to deal with the new reality of having to play without fans within a bubble.
In spite of all those disruptions, Odaudu believes that the break, and all the resulting changes, have put the team in a better position to compete than they were a year ago, as it allowed the team more time to get their house in order.
While expectation may be that the Basketball Africa League will be light in talent in its inaugural season, former NBA guard Ben Uzoh believes a surprise is on the way.
"It will be pretty good. The signings that I've been reading and that I've been made aware of across the country and across the continent have been pretty solid," Uzoh told The Undefeated recently.
One big question as the league debuts is if there are any former NBA players set to play. Uzoh of Nigeria's Rivers Hoopers is expected to have the most NBA experience of all the anticipated players.
The former University of Tulsa star played in 60 NBA games with the New Jersey Nets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors while also playing professionally in the G League and in Russia, Belgium, Mexico, France and Nigeria.
How to watch
The entire 26-game tournament airs in Africa on ESPN (Channel 218 on DStv), as well as on Azam channel 120, Zuku channel 320, and StarTimes channel 256.
In the U.S, all games will be available on ESPN+ while the opening game and Finals will also air on ESPNews. ESPN will air the opening game and Finals in select countries in Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America, and all BAL games will air on ESPN's digital platforms in those same regions. BAL games and programming will also be available in Canada on TSN and in China on Tencent Video.