In recent weeks the National Basketball Association (NBA) has mourned the loss of two prominent figures — legendary league champion Kobe Bryant and former commissioner of the league, David Stern.

The international reach and popularity of Bryant has been well documented, but it is his death that has propelled the NBA community and beyond to reflect on the commissioner’s contributions to the league.

Stern served as the league’s commissioner from 1984 to 2014 and is credited with the growth and success of the game globally because of several ventures and expansions he headed. One of these ventures were expeditions to Africa dating back to 1993.

As of February 2020, the NBA broadcast games in more than 215 countries and territories, and in more than 40 languages. The league’s inaugural All-Star Weekend, essentially an exhibition weekend, this year featured a record 19 players from 15 countries. Cameroon’s Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam were selected as part of the starting lineup for the marquee game.

Both players are products of the NBA and International Basketball Federation (Fiba) global basketball development programme, which has hosted several camps in South Africa and other African countries since 2001.

The league’s expansion into Africa continues to grow under current commissioner, Adam Silver, who deputised for Stern and took over when he retired. Under Silver, the NBA’s African division has put on three successful exhibition games on the continent. And now, an African league will be launched in Dakar, Senegal. 

The league was scheduled to begin on March 13, but it was announced on Wednesday that its launch would be postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak. “Following the recommendation of the Senegalese government regarding the escalating health concerns related to the coronavirus, the BAL’s inaugural season will be postponed,” president Amadou Gallo Fall said in a statement. “I am disappointed we are not able to tip off this historic league as scheduled but look forward to the highly-anticipated launch of the BAL at a later date.”

How the league will play out

The inaugural season of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) will feature 12 teams. These are:

  • Groupement Sportif des Pétroliers (GSP), Algeria; 
  • Club Atlético Petroleos de Luanda (Petro de Luanda), Angola;
  • Forces Armées et Police Basketball (FAP), Cameroon; 
  • Zamalek, Egypt; 
  • Gendarmerie Nationale Basketball Club (GNBC), Madagascar; 
  • Association Sportive de la Police Nationale (AS Police), Mali; 
  • Association Sportive de Salé (AS Salé) ,Morocco; 
  • Ferroviário de Maputo, Mozambique; 
  • Rivers Hoopers Basketball Club (Rivers Hoopers BC), Nigeria; 
  • Patriots Basketball Club (Patriots BC), Rwanda;
  • Association Sportive des Douanes (AS Douanes), Senegal; and 
  • Union Sportive Monastirienne (US Monastir), Tunisia. 

The Angolan, Egyptian, Moroccan, Nigerian, Senegalese and Tunisian teams were champions from countries that were guaranteed representation for this season; the remaining half of the participating teams secured their spots through the BAL’s qualifying tournament, which took place towards the end of 2019. 

Host cities for the regular BAL season are Cairo (Egypt), Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Monastir (Tunisia) and Salé (Morocco). The league will be split into two conferences, with three cities allocated to each conference. Each team will play every team in their conference once and the top four teams will advance to the single-game elimination playoff round. All post-season games — playoffs and finals — will be played in Kigali, Rwanda, at the newly erected Kigali Arena. 

The league will be the first NBA-operated league, in partnership with Fiba, outside North America. On previous occasions Silver has affirmed his goals for the NBA to become “the biggest lifestyle brand on the continent in the next 10 years”. 

At the recent All-Star Weekend in Chicago, Silver spoke about his expectations for BAL: “I’m personally very excited about it. You think of the growth of sort of the interest from Africa in the league over the years — that’s sort of the modern history back to 1984, Hakeem Olajuwon being drafted until today … We have tremendous talent coming from the continent, as well as tremendous interest.”

The BAL is using Fiba’s club competition format as its foundation, and Silver expounded on the thinking behind the league (or tournament in US sport parlance). In an attempt to attract the interest of Africa’s soccer-loving populace, he has styled it as a “sort of Champions League”, which takes 12 existing club teams and pits them against each other over the course of several months.