NBA commissioner Adam Silver (holding basketball) with NBA Africa vice-president Amadou Gallo Fall (purple tie) and a host of current and former NBA stars at the launch of the NBA Africa Game. Photo: Barry Aldworth/eXpect LIFE

Shakira’s hips not lying alongside mine at the closing press conference of the 2010 Fifa World Cup at Soccer City is my abiding memory of Africa’s biggest sporting undertaking.

At Lord’s, for the Ashes Test between England and Australia, it’s the scrumptious bacon sandwiches in the ET-style spaceship of a media centre that I remember of my experience at world cricket’s holy grail.

In ancient Olympia, it’s the almost impossibly tasty, melt-in-your-mouth lamb, potatoes and fresh Greek salad that sticks out when I recall the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.

Okay, so I clearly love my food, and not surprisingly, the tastes and flavours I have encountered at some of world sport’s cathedrals stand out.

For a glutton for the theatre of global sport, however, the NBA All-Star Weekend is unmatched for me.

It’s a delicious smorgasbord of athleticism, sporting spectacle and sheer exhilaration that beggars belief.

I was fortunate to attend the 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles in the US this week.

And this time, the food was bland in the city of angels, but the entertainment, showmanship and the brilliance of some of the globe’s supreme athletes was simply out of this world.

All the clichés don’t do it justice – sensational, mind-blowing, gobsmacking, orgasmic – none of them quite describes this unique event.

FLASHBACK: How we reported live from LA on the NBA Africa Game returning to Johannesburg

I worked intimately as part of the team that delivered Africa’s first Fifa World Cup, seeing first-hand the scale, magnitude and attention to detail needed to seamlessly put on an event the whole world religiously watches.

And there is no doubt that the opening and final matches of a Fifa World Cup remain the biggest in world sport in terms of its reach and global appeal, events watched live by nearly 1 billion people.

Jermaine Craig.

While the NBA and basketball can only aspire to match Fifa and football’s ability to touch virtually every global village and home, there’s no doubt the NBA is far superior in its execution of live events and its focus on the fan and viewer experience.

Look, when you’ve got gargantuan beasts of a baller such as LeBron James and the silky skills and finesse of Steph Curry as your game’s best and brightest current exponents, you don’t need much else.

For the NBA, their appeal will always be the 2.1-metre hulks who somehow fly through the sky like ballerinas and dunk basketballs with the velocity of an earthquake.

The NBA has long mastered the thrill, glitz, star power, and spectator engagement that keeps its rabid disciples gripped, and has made basketball one of the world’s fastest growing sports.

Fans travel across the globe and the length and the breadth of the US to simply be a part of All-Star Weekend, barely flinching at paying over a thousand dollars a pop to attend just one of the events on the weekend’s basketball programme.

And it’s easy to see why.

Fans are engrossed for hours, the basketball on All-Star Weekend often a sideshow with so much to feast your eyes with, on and off the court.

The fan experience – inside the arena and for the millions watching around the world – is paramount.

Skills contests, gravity-defying dunking competitions, three-point shooting drills, kiss cams, zany mascots and impromptu music performances from some of the world’s biggest entertainers – all watched courtside by some of the biggest stars in music and film – are what make this event truly something else.

At halftime of the main All-Star game, the Staples Center was instantly turned into a concert hall as Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D rocked the crowd with a performance that was worth the entry fee alone, while Black Eyed Peas’ Fergie performed a sultry pre-game American national anthem.

NBA Africa vice-president Amadou Gallo Fall (left) chats to actor Djimon Hounsou (right) and ex-NBA star Bismack Biyombo at the NBA Africa Game launch. Photo: Barry Aldworth/eXpect LIFE

The biggest names in world music all sat courtside – Snoop Dogg sipping his gin and juice, Diddy, Chance the Rapper, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Jack Nicholson, Ellen Pompeo, Ludacris, DJ Khaled – they were all there, sitting within shoelace distance of the players from Team LeBron and Team Stephen battling it out on the court.

The biggest stars on the night, though, taking pride of place at Staples, were Black Panther’s biggest stars Chadwick Boseman and Michael B Jordan (who had to sit down though when THE Michael Jordan showed up on court).

Fortuitously, the NBA All-Star Weekend took place in Los Angeles on the weekend of the global release of Hollywood’s biggest current blockbuster, Black Panther.

And it was fitting too, for a movie that celebrated African excellence, skill and ingenuity, that NBA Africa and African basketball’s growth and importance to the broader NBA organisation becomes more and more pronounced.

The NBA has seen an explosion in the number of African basketball stars playing in the league, and first time All-Star, Cameroonian Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, was one of the weekend’s biggest fan and media attractions.

A total of 20 first- and second-generation African players started the current season in the NBA, and that number is set to grow as the game’s popularity spreads like wildfire on the African continent.

Outside of this year’s All Star game, another feather in the NBA Africa cap was Nigeria’s towering teenager Charles Bassey walking away with the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award at the Basketball Without Borders camp, attended by 67 of the world’s elite teenage basketballers from 36 countries.

A huge future awaits the towering Nigerian, as NBA scouts licked their lips courtside to jostle for his signature, dangling carrots of what will surely be multi-million dollar contracts when he is ready to turn pro.

NBA Africa Vice President Amadou Gallo Fall speaks about the NBA Africa Game returning to Johannesburg. Video: Jermaine Craig

The NBA first opened up its doors in Africa in Johannesburg in May 2010, and its work is beginning to pay off big time as Africa’s basketballers make their presence count in the NBA and the gospel of the game spreads its tentacles to more and more African countries.

NBA Africa used the All-Star Weekend as an opportunity to not only blow its increasingly big basketball horns, but to also trumpet the continent globally to an influential audience as a major investment destination.

At an “Africa Now” lunch moderated by Sierra Leone’s CNN anchor Isha Sesay, NBA Africa vice-president Amadou Gallo Fall announced that the NBA Africa Game between Team Africa and Team World would return to South Africa for the third time on August 4.

To give an indication of the growth and importance of NBA Africa’s role to the multibillion-dollar NBA organisation, the announcement was attended by NBA commissioner Adam Silver and a host of celebrities, basketball stars and African entrepreneurs.

Just some of those also in attendance at the NBA Africa game announcement included American-Senegalese musician and entrepreneur Akon, Benin actor Djimon Hounsou of Blood Diamond fame, Liberian entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis – the Shea Moisture founder who recently bought Essence Magazine from Time INC – as well as a slew of current and former African NBA stars such as Dikembe Mutombo, Didier Mbenga, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo, all Congolese.

South African celebrities who attended included actress and model Nomzamo Mbatha and television personality Pearl Thusi, musician Cassper Nyovest and Nigerian film-maker Akin Omotoso.

African personalities DJ Cosmo, Siyabonga Ngwekazi and Pearl Thusi outside the Staples Center before the NBA All-Star Game. Photo: Barry Aldworth/eXpect LIFE

And Silver made no bones about the NBA’s commercial approach to the African continent and the seriousness with which it views the region’s growth potential.

“Africa is one of the fastest-growing continents in the world, and the NBA and the sport of basketball is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

“The NBA Africa game is not just about sport, but it’s also about business. We see a huge opportunity in Africa,” said Silver.

And the investment message came across strongly from NBA Africa, and from some of the continent’s brightest minds and entrepreneurs.

The stories told were inspiring and powerful.

Sundial Brands’ chief executive Dennis spoke of how he started selling his cosmetic products on a street corner in New York, inspired by the lack of beauty products designed to serve the needs of black women.

“Inspired by the core of African ingredients and traditions, I eventually started selling my products in stores in a small corner, which was called the ‘ethnic aisle’.

“We fought to transform those aisles into ‘beauty aisles’ that celebrated black women,” Dennis told the audience at the NBA Africa luncheon.

He turned his business into the 10th biggest beauty brand in the world, which was eventually bought by the global giant consumer goods company, Unilever.

“I bought Essence because I believe we have to own our own narrative. We can’t rely on anyone else to transmit our culture, emotions, and the things we care about.

“We have to create it, but we also have to own the distribution network. Our culture must stand up tall.

“It is important that we must own and maintain it, otherwise someone else does.

“In Africa, we have the smarts, the resources and the people. We have everything we need,” said Dennis.

NBA Africa vice-president Amadou Gallo Fall at the launch of the NBA Africa Game, with Shea Moisture founder Richelieu Dennis in the foreground. Photo: Barry Aldworth/eXpect LIFE

For musician-turned-entrepreneur Akon, he was inspired by visits to Senegal to his grandmother, and seeing her village still without electricity and basic amenities.

“In Africa, energy affects everybody. I once did a concert in Sierra Leone and during the third song, the lights went out and it ended up nearly causing a huge riot.

“When I visited my grandmother in Senegal, in her area there’s still no electricity.

“If you become successful, you want to do something for your family, and I said ‘Grandma, let me buy you a house’.

“She said ‘I don’t want a house, I raised all of you in this home and I don’t want to move from it’.

“I said at least let me put some lights up in here,” Akon recalled.

He found, though, that even after meeting Senegal’s president, African “power politics” were more detrimental than beneficial, and he was told it would “cost billions” to electrify Senegal.

In partnership with alternative energy company Selectra, he has started an ambitious solar power project that has benefited the lives of his grandmother, and millions and millions of Africans.

“We started with a goal of electrifying one million homes, and we’re now in 16 African countries,” said Akon.

The World Bank’s Makhtar Diop said the current positivity around the African continent was “a great opportunity to demonstrate Africa’s talent”.

“It’s important that the public at large knows that Africans are doing great things, not only in the US, but around the globe.

“Agriculture remains one of our biggest challenges, as well as creating more economic and political certainty.

“The land issue too is a major factor for the whole of the African continent, ensuring our people have title deeds and access to land, so that they can invest and participate in the field of agriculture,” said Diop.

“We also need to change our rapport with the youth in Africa. We talk a lot to the youth, but we don’t listen to them enough.

“We need to develop small, medium and micro enterprises, more young entrepreneurs, and sophisticated education systems.

“Currently, for instance, only 20% of African students coming through universities graduate in the fields of science and technology, and we need to change that.

“Unless we have African communities who are economically independent, we will always have problems.

“We need to invest in our youth and help them to achieve their objectives,” Diop added.

Akon speaks about the impact that the NBA Africa Game can make on the continent. Video: Jermaine Craig

Inventor and entrepreneur, Uncharted Play founder Jessica O Matthews, rubbished US President Donald Trump’s recent stance towards immigrants and his description of African countries as “s***hole countries”.

“I hail from Nigeria and I myself am a patent holder in the US, with 10 patents outstanding.

“In my mind, I’ve brought innovation to the US, as a woman and importantly as a woman of colour.

“Most of the innovation that has built the US and moved it forward has come from immigrants to the country, and Trump’s comments are against the reality of those statistics.

“What Africans need is the internal mantra to believe in our own ideas.

“We’ve always said magic does not exist, but what if success is the pathway to magic? That’s the culture we must inculcate in our African youth,” said Jacobs.

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For Fall, he has always believed basketball is merely a catalyst for Africa’s youth.

Whether those who play the sport of basketball become stars in the NBA, or confident, empowered, strong, influential African leaders of their communities is equally important, he believes.

“We are trying to touch every corner of the African continent with the sport of basketball, and we bring our best young talent on the continent to the global stage such as NBA All-Star Weekend to tell them to dream big, to have really high ambitions.

“With big dreams and hard work, anything is possible,” said Fall.

* Jermaine Craig is the Group Executive: Sport & Motoring for Independent Media.

 

Cape Times