NBA Academy and BAL give African teens an alternative to soccer

BAL stars open up about their love for football (1:28)

Emmanuel Okorafor and Khaman Maluach speak about their passion for Premier League football. (1:28)

NBA Academy players Emmanuel Okorafor, from Nigeria, and Khaman Maluach, from South Sudan, have a lot in common, from a love for basketball to a shared passion for playing FIFA... but they differ very strongly when it comes to the Premier League teams they support.

Bitter rivals Chelsea and Manchester United have staunch supporters in the two teens, who met when they joined the NBA Academy in Senegal, and then played at the Basketball Africa League's Nile Conference in April.

The BAL Elevate programme saw each team handed one Academy player for the duration of the tournament, with Maluach, who is only 15 and stands at 7ft, playing for South Sudan's Cobra Sport, and Okorafor, 17, playing for DR Congo's Espoir Fukash.

The two hoopers both played The Beautiful Game as kids, with child-like ambitions to go pro, until their height [Maluach was 6ft7in at the age of 12] saw them change direction, onto a path becoming more and more viable for Africa's lanky athletes.

READ: Everything you need to know about the BAL 2022

Chelsea fan Okorafor's love for football remains deep though, and he considers Nigeria legend John Obi Mikel an idol. Despite Mikel having left Chelsea, the Nigerian teenager is still a supporter of the Blues.

"John Obi Mikel is an inspiration for me because he came from a poor background and struggled through Nigerian football and ended up at Chelsea. Even at Chelsea, he did great -- he did a good job. He's a legend -- everyone knows John Obi Mikel, so he's a big idol also to me," Okorafor told ESPN.

Just as Mikel played a major role in Okorafor falling in love with football, so did his older brother in convincing him to transition to basketball.

Okorafor added: "Growing up, I played soccer. My big brother played basketball, so I always followed him when he went to play basketball and fell in love [with] bouncing the ball and shooting the ball, even though I was too weak to make it to the hoop."

Maluach, who had a similar journey from football to basketball while growing up in Uganda, said: "I used to love football, or soccer, so much.

"I used to be a goalkeeper or striker sometimes. Suddenly, they told me to join a Luol Deng camp -- it was happening in Uganda. They told me I should just go and watch and maybe I would love it.

"Most of my brothers knew I would grow taller -- at that time, I was maybe 6'7" or 6'8". Suddenly, I fell in love with the game of basketball. In 2019, everything started coming slowly and I fell in love.

"I saw some highlights of Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and KD [Kevin Durant]. I think it was at the time that Giannis got Bucks MVP, so I was like: 'Wow.' I fell in love with the game of basketball."

Although the two youngsters have much in common, especially lounging on the couch and playing FIFA for hours, Maluach's football supporter credentials are directly opposed to Okorafor's, and even Maluach's own family's allegiances.

"I support Manchester United," said Maluach. "Almost everyone from my brother's side, all his kids, they support Chelsea. I was the only different Manchester United fan -- and my elder brother. We are the only two Manchester United fans.

"I love Manchester United. I saw Cristiano Ronaldo's highlights... I fell in love. And Juan Mata [and Paul] Pogba. I really like how they play."

While not all BAL Elevate players were able to impose themselves to the extent that Okorafor and Maluach did, the duo profited from being in teams without many established stars as it gave them more court time than most.

Both will be remembered for heroic performances against African champions Zamalek. Maluach held his own in Cobra's opening game, an 80-63 defeat to the Nile Conference hosts.

But Okorafor went one further and stole the show in a 101-92 loss to the same opponents, securing a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds in 25:35 minutes on the court.

The generally impressive performances of BAL Elevate players in Dakar and Cairo caught the attention of some senior players, with Zamalek's Nigerian star Ike Diogu and Petro de Luanda's Angolan legend Carlos Morais singing the praises of their own teams' teens.

Morais told ESPN: "For us, we've got lucky because we have a nice guy, a nice kid [Thierry Serge Darlan]. He knows how to take care of himself. He doesn't talk much but he lifted the whole team. For us, it's been amazing having a young player of such talent."

Meanwhile, Diogu, who played alongside Khadim Mboup, said: "He's very good. The sky is the limit. Being 15 years old and coming in and playing against grown men and holding his own - the sky is the limit for him."

Asked if he could have performed adequately in the BAL at the age of 15, Diogu said: "Probably not, because it's professional basketball and there's a certain level of physicality that comes with African basketball.

"Just going to high school in the United States, it's a totally new brand of basketball being played [in Africa], so I'm not sure that I would have."

With Cobra Sport and Espoir Fukash eliminated from the BAL as the roadshow heads to the Playoffs in May, Maluach and Okorafor will have to plot the next steps in their careers, and hope that next year's BAL will give them another chance to shine.

One ingredient that will not be in short supply for the pair is motivation. Maluach explained that he is carrying the family name when he takes to the court: "I am the first basketball player in my family, maybe even our clan, to reach this level.

"I had a cousin that played basketball. He's the one who gives me the most advice. I get some advice from my mom, even though she doesn't know the game of basketball. She always tells me to pray before I play."

Okorafor, who will also return to the NBA Academy to continue his basketball and academic education, summed up the duo's determination most succinctly: "I don't have a second option. Basketball is going to work out, for sure!"

The BAL Playoffs will take place in Kigali, Rwanda, from May 21 to 28, and will feature the top eight sides that advanced from the Sahara and Nile Conferences, including defending champions Zamalek, and surprise package Cape Town Tigers.