'It can't fail' - Inside the NBA's plan to find the next Giannis in Nigeria

The NBA finally have a footprint in Africa's most populous country, with an office opening in Lagos, Nigeria, in February this year, and Gbemisola Abudu, NBA Africa VP and country lead, is on a mission to make it as wide as possible.

With the NBA boasting a number of high-profile Nigeria-origin players over the years, including Greece international Giannis Antetokounmpo [his original Nigerian surname was Adetokunbo], Abudu and NBA Africa are eager to develop the wealth of talent from grassroots level up.

ESPN spoke to the University of Wyoming alum during the Basketball Africa League's Nile Conference in Cairo in April, about the NBA's plan for the region, her own goals for youth and social development, and for filling the 'blank slate' that is Nigeria with basketball courts.

READ: Everything you need to know about the BAL 2022

ESPN: Aside from the BAL, what sorts of projects are you working on [in the Nigeria office of the NBA]? What is your overall ambition?

Gbemisola Abudu: That's one of my favourite questions. The amazing thing about it is that it's a blank slate. For NBA Nigeria, I'd break down our mandate into three pillars. One is really creating a robust talent pipeline in Nigeria, meaning from childhood all the way to the elite level.

How do we get kids to be exposed to basketball at a young age? [We're] making basketball more accessible for them. Whether they make it all the way to the elite level or not, they'll benefit from the life skills basketball teaches. I think that's a very exciting prospect, because that impacts infrastructure development in Nigeria.

Secondly, it's really this basketball ecosystem. How do we develop a more robust basketball ecosystem? Given what the NBA represents, and us being able to influence that in Nigeria, part of that is making sure that NBA and BAL games are accessible across the country. It's not a matter of just the certain pockets of individuals having access to basketball games.

[The question is:] how do we ensure that the way people go to pubs in Nigeria to watch a football game, you can watch a BAL game in a pub [and] you can watch an NBA game easily? It's making sure that from a free-to-air arrangement that your average Nigerian has access to basketball. It's really about bringing the NBA to Nigeria.

One of the amazing things about the platform the NBA brings is that it's a perfect intersection for all things culture: food, music, fashion and art. Nigeria has become a purveyor of culture in Africa. How do we bring all of that together for the NBA brand in Nigeria?

We have over 200 million people. How do you get a larger percentage of that population to develop an affinity for basketball and specifically develop an affinity for the NBA? We have so many exciting plans. I'm really, really excited.

ESPN: Football in Africa is everybody's biggest sport. It's cheap to play. You just need a ball and a bit of space. Would part of your mandate be to provide access to hoops and courts that may not exist in a fancy arena? Rather just a court, an outdoor court?

Abudu: Absolutely. We have existing programmes, and we have programmes that we're looking to roll out in the next coming months -- or maybe to develop partnerships where we're looking to refurbish existing courts -- and also court-building initiatives. We have a goal of building 1000 courts in the next 10 years.

What you see happening already is the private sector in Nigeria wanting to partner with us and finding different, interesting, ways to make the game accessible. Infrastructure is a big part of it, so we're looking at creative ways, whether it's refurbishing existing courts or building courts, and looking at different partnerships to make sure that is happening.

Ongoing in Nigeria, we donated a legacy court during the NBA Crossover. We donated a legacy court to the Ikorodu community in Lagos. Basically, we're giving the young boys and girls in that community a court where they can easily play basketball.

But it's not just providing a court. It's like, what kind of programmes can we work with the community [on] to make sure that young boys and girls are really able to play basketball?

ESPN: Are there big-name Nigerian NBA players with whom you're planning to partner, to bring visibility to all these programmes?

Abudu: One thing I have to say, I give NBA players of Nigerian heritage so much credit. A lot of them have reached out to me, saying: 'You know what? We're happy the NBA is in Nigeria. We want to do something in Nigeria. We want to go back home. How can we work together?'

This is not just one or two players. Whether it's current players or even former players that have been reaching out, it's very exciting.

One thing about Nigerians is that we have a major sense of national pride. A lot of these players want to come back home. They want to do something. They want to figure out how they can be plugged into the NBA's plan in Nigeria. We have summer camps in Nigeria. We're working with them to figure out how the NBA can facilitate them with that. That's where I give them credit.

I'm so proud, because it's not a matter of us trying to reach out to them and convince them. They're saying they want to help shed light on whatever the NBA is doing.

They have established a credibility in the market. People love them, whether it's Jordan [Nwora], Precious [Achiuwa], or Giannis.

What [Giannis] did at the NBA All-Star game was major signalling, where he had the hoodie, the Nigerian zip code +234 on there. We have such national pride. I'm so excited that the NBA in Nigeria and the opportunity is [there].

ESPN: Do you work with WNBA as well? People always think they're the same company, but they're not, so I'm curious to know.

Abudu: To me, they are. It's not just NBA players, but WNBA players of Nigerian heritage as well. There are those who have reached out. I had the opportunity to meet some of them... They share the same sentiment. They want to be part of it. Typically, I would say 99% of the time, when I say NBA, I mean WNBA [too, because it] belongs with the whole family.

ESPN: Do you feel pressure to be successful in this venture? The hard work is done in that there is already a fanbase, but...

Abudu: Maybe I'll feel it eventually, but I don't. I've heard Amadou [Gallo Fall] and Masai [Ujiri] speak over the years about what it would be like if we had [The BAL] in Africa and it's here now. I just see it as an amazing opportunity to be part of creating this legacy for a sport I love so dearly and a brand that I care about in Nigeria.

The reality is, and maybe this sort of also speaks to the type of person I am, I love a challenge. My background really has been building companies from the ground up. When you're building something from the ground up, the difference is [that in this case], you have that affinity already and that strong brand, so how do you take that and build on that?

You look at football -- football is cheap to play, as you have mentioned, but the reality is that significant investment has been made over the years. The reality is, we haven't done that yet, but we're doing that.

The NBA has been on the continent since 2010. We're doing that investment, whether it's the BAL now, to the junior NBA programmes, to grassroots, we're doing all the things football has done until now.

To me, the reality is it can't fail. That's just the way I see it, mentally. You put the right investment in place, you partner with the right people, and the love of the game and the affinity for the brand already exists. You bring all of that together and it's guaranteed to succeed.

There is that internal drive to make it happen. The best way to describe this is: I am the face of 1000 people who have been pushing for this to happen, and now here it is. So, get to work and make it happen and build on what others have built. I don't believe it can fail. It's not an experiment. It's already a proven concept.

ESPN: One of your goals, I guess, would be to have one of these BAL legs in Nigeria [the original BAL structure, before COVID-19, was to have the tournament travel around the continent, but this year the tournament is being played in three locations].

Abudu: Yes. Honestly, when you have a product -- BAL is our product -- the consumers will tell you what to do. You have a huge demand all over the place. I believe the market will tell us exactly what it [the format] should be in the long run. I think this is the best format right now, based on the reality of the environment, based on the ability of the infrastructure as well.

As time goes on, I believe that whenever you have an entity like the NBA somewhere, it has a domino effect... I want the BAL to come to my country, so at that point, when you have a huge demand, all the federations are reaching out... I believe the market in the long run will tell us where we're supposed to be.

ESPN: How important is it to have prominent Nigerian investors and brands involved, and does it speak to the opportunity in Nigeria?

Abudu: Oh, tremendously. When you're starting a business, the more you can align yourself with people who have strong established brands in the market you're going into, the better. Not only can you leverage off their credibility in the market; you can leverage off their resources, their connections - all of that enables us to be better positioned in Nigeria.

I say from a credibility perspective, because in the market, some people like the NBA, but one of the reasons why the opportunity is huge is: we have 200 million people. In reality, how many people are huge NBA fans, basketball fans, at the moment?

My goal is to have 50% of the population supporting us. When the average kid grows up and says: 'I want to play in the BAL,' when that becomes part of their subconscious, then you've done something right.

The BAL Playoffs and Finals will be played in Kigali, Rwanda from May 21-28, and will air on ESPN in Africa, as well as on ESPN+ and ESPN News in the US.