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Barack Obama reportedly set for role with NBA-backed African basketball league

Barack Obama, shown at a 2012 White House event, was an avid fan of basketball during his presidency. (Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The NBA is helping to establish a new professional basketball league in Africa, and it has the enthusiastic support of Barack Obama. In fact, the former president reportedly will have a role with the league, although the extent of his involvement has yet to be announced.

During NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, the league announced a partnership with FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, to create the Basketball Africa League. Set to debut in 2020, the BAL will feature 12 teams from across the continent, with qualifying tournaments to be held later this year.

The Associated Press reported Saturday that Obama is “among those who are expected to have direct involvement with the league’s plan to keep growing the game in Africa through the league and other initiatives.” In a tweet, Obama said that he’s “always loved basketball because it’s about building a team that’s equal to more than the sum of its parts.”

“Glad to see this expansion into Africa because for a rising continent, this can be about a lot more than what happens on the court,” Obama added.

The former president also retweeted a video from the NBA in which he appeared in clips taken from a trip he made to Kenya in 2018, his first visit to his father’s native land since leaving office. While there, he took part in a basketball-oriented event benefiting a foundation formed by his half sister, Auma Obama, that uses sports and education to help young people in rural Kenya gain greater opportunities.

“I hope you know, through sport, that if you put in effort, you will be rewarded,” Obama said at the event. “I hope you learn through sport what it means to play as a team, and that even if you are the best player, your job is not just to show off, but your job is to make your teammates better.”

“As we’ve been talking about this concept over the last several months,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said of the BAL, “there’s been a tremendous reception from many of our NBA team owners … and in addition, several of the partners of the NBA have expressed a strong desire to work with us in Africa.”

Silver said that among those partners was Jordan Brand, Michael Jordan’s signature line of Nike products, and the former Bulls great who now owns the Charlotte Hornets was on hand for the announcement of the new league. Among those also in attendance were Dikembe Mutombo, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame; several current players with ties to Africa, including the Hornets’ Bismack Biyombo, the Timberwolves’ Josh Okogie and the Raptors’ OG Anunoby; and WNBA all-star Chiney Ogwumike.

“It’s a big celebration. It is a dream come true for all of us,” Mutombo, a native of Congo, told The Undefeated. “I was fortunate enough to play this game and dreamed of something like this happening in the continent."

“We did this because players like Dikembe pointed to the opportunity that existed, not just in basketball, but the sports industry throughout the continent,” Silver told The Undefeated. “There are a lot of young players in Africa who know about the success of Mutombo but don’t understand how to pursue those opportunities. Dikembe was very fortunate to come to school in the United States and be at Georgetown and have the benefit of fantastic coaching and mentoring. Of course, many players in Africa would not know who to turn to. We know that by building this basketball infrastructure, it’s going to create generations of new Dikembe Mutombos. On top of that, it can become an economic engine for all of Africa.”

FIBA Secretary General Andreas Zagklis, who said in a statement that it was “a huge joy to see our partnership with the NBA enter uncharted territory as we work together for the first time to maximize the potential of professional basketball in Africa.”

According to FIBA, no more than two teams from any African country will be able to qualify for the BAL. The countries set to hold tournaments to determine the 12-team field include Angola, Egypt, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa and Tunisia.

While he was in office, Obama had a basketball court installed at the White House. An avid fan of the sport, he made time during his presidency to play with staffers, Cabinet officials and NBA stars, even after he needed 12 stitches in his lip from taking an opponent’s elbow during a 2010 game.

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