By Ayotunde Onabolu
Saturday February 16, 2019 was Day Two of the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in the Queen City, Charlotte, North Carolina, where an estimated 150,000 guests and 1,500 journalists from across the world had arrived to experience the ambiance of festivities which would culminate in the biggest and most popular stars going at it during the All-Star Game. But in the midst of the weekend that began with the Celebrity Game and ended with the All-Star Game, two events would shape African basketball history, perhaps forever. Here is a timeline of the day’s events:
1:00 AM West Africa Standard Time (WAT)
Africa stayed up very early that Saturday morning to enjoy the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game presented by Ruffles as the viral comedian, Famous Los scored 22 points and led the Home team coached by the legendary Dawn Staley to an 82-80 win over the Away team.
3:00 AM WAT
It’s that time when sleep is sweetest, but basketball freaks and addicts (in the most pleasant way) defied sleep—after all, it’s the weekend—to watch the MTN DEW ICE Rising Stars with Los Angeles Lakers’ enterprising young player Kyle Kuzma taking home MVP honors as his 35 points led Team USA to a 161-144 win over Team World for which Nigeria’s Josh Okogie played. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ 20th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft scored 13 points in 18 minutes off the bench, including a monstrous put-back dunk right over Jarrett Allen of the Brooklyn Nets with about four minutes played in the third quarter.
9:00 AM Eastern Time (ET)
A group of African journalists (including the writer) made their way to Bojangles Coliseum, a multi-purpose arena on Independence Boulevard in Charlotte to catch the All-Star Practice and Media Day, during which numerous media personalities thronged the floor to ask questions from the various All-Star Saturday Night participants and the Team LeBron and Team Giannis All-Stars who were going to compete in the All-Star Game the following day.
When asked what message he had for African folks back home who would be staying awake to watch him compete in the AT&T Slam Dunk Contest later on in the day, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Hamidou Diallo said, “Well, I have a couple of tricks up my sleeve and [I’m] looking forward to tonight and I can’t wait to get out there to showcase [them].”
An interesting thing to note here is that at this point in time, Diallo, who was born to Guinean parents in Queens, New York had the fewest reporters talking to him in the arena. He was relatively unknown. Originally drafted 45th overall in the 2018 NBA Draft by the Brooklyn Nets and then traded first to the Charlotte Hornets and then to OKC, the 20-year-old struggled to get playing time for the ball club and was promptly assigned to OKC’s G-League affiliate, Oklahoma City Blue. Little wonder reporters generally ignored him and opted for the more popular faces that would compete with him in the Slam Dunk contest later that night—Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins who had thrown down massive dunks during the Rising Stars game a night before; Dennis Smith Jr of the New York Knicks who was taking part in his second Slam Dunk competition and homeboy rookie; Miles Bridges of the Hornets.
11:00 AM ET
The African journalists, representing countries such as South Africa, Senegal, Tanzania, Rwanda, Morocco, and Nigeria, decided to leave the Bojangles Coliseum before Media Day ended. But why? Something was brewing. They had to go to the Charlotte Marriott City Center Hotel on West Trade Street, Uptown Charlotte for an event, details of which weren’t made public as at that time. All that was said was that an important announcement was going to be made by the NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver. The event was scheduled to start at noon ET.
At noon ET, there were no signs of the event starting despite the presence of quite a number of guests. “African time” had certainly kicked in. Sigh. Some guests had taken their seats while some others were seen chatting with one another as the start of the event was awaited. Of course, there were those latecomers. Typical, isn’t it?
12:45 PM ET/6:45 PM WAT
Finally, the event starts! Isha Sesay, formerly of CNN, hosted the event which would turn out to be one of the most important events in African basketball history. NBA Commissioner Silver mounted the podium and gave THE ANNOUNCEMENT (pun unintended, but if you know, you know)—the monumental announcement—that the NBA and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) are teaming up to launch what will be called the Basketball Africa League (BAL)—a 12-team league that will commence early 2020. Wow!!!
The BAL will be the NBA’s first professional basketball league outside North America. To prove how pivotal and important this is, the NBA has held preseason games in China, with two preseason games scheduled to hold in India later in the year; regular season games have been played in Mexico City and London, and the NBA Africa exhibition has held three times. Organizing a pro-league outside America pretty much shows that there must be something special about the African continent.
The BAL will replace the existing Africa Basketball League (formerly called FIBA Africa Clubs Champions Cup). 12 teams will participate in the inaugural competition. The modalities for selecting the 12 teams and the competition format will be announced subsequently.
The Secretary General of FIBA, Andreas Zagklis expressed what the partnership between the NBA and FIBA concerning the BAL would bring to the table. “FIBA and the NBA are two big organizations; the NBA, an excellent league organization that will for the first time participate in such a level of involvement in a league outside of North America, and FIBA, the world basketball federation, joining powers for a continental league. This by itself, I think brings an added value, and in reality, what we are doing as of today is bringing our long-standing partnership with the NBA to the next level.”
NBA Vice-President and Managing Director of NBA Africa, Amadou Gallo Fall also spoke about the BAL. “This is not something we’re creating side-by-side [with the Africa Basketball League], it is going to be one product—the Basketball Africa League—on the continent where the best players in Africa and certainly, the best players from around the world will come and have another league where they can participate, whether they’re from America, Russia or Serbia. The vast majority of the players will be from Africa.”
There were several eminent personalities present at the announcement including Six-time NBA champion and principal owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Michael Jordan, presidents of some NBA teams including Masai Ujiri (Toronto Raptors), past and current NBA players, and so on. Former US President Barack Obama, who featured through a video message, will be involved in the league, although his role has not been defined.
The announcement of the BAL generated great excitement back in Africa as stakeholders, players, and fans can’t wait for the commencement of the league.
2:00 AM WAT (Sunday)
It’s sleep time across Africa, but of course, basketball fans in their numbers stayed awake to catch the State Farm All-Star Saturday Night which began with the Taco Bells Skills Challenge won on a half-court shot by Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum. In one of the closer Three-Point Contests in recent history, Brooklyn Nets’ sharpshooter Joe Harris stunned the greatest shooter in NBA history, Steph Curry to win the honors, setting the stage for the Slam Dunk Contest which was soon to follow.
Of course, Africans remembered the promise made earlier by the relatively unknown Diallo from OKC. He was going up against more popular players than him—Collins, Smith Jr and Bridges. For his second dunk—the best dunk of the competition, Diallo called out Hall of Famer, Shaquille O’Neal whom he positioned at the top of the restricted area. Africa held her breath as the 6-foot 5-inch guard with an insane vertical of 44½ inches started his run from just outside the top of the arc, jumped over the 7-foot Shaq, dunked the ball hard, stuck his elbow in the rim and ripped open his Thunder jersey to show off the Superman shirt underneath. Vince Carter, the first NBA player to perform the “elbow-left-in-the-rim” dunk would have been proud.
You can imagine how many sleeping neighbors of the African basketball addicts suddenly woke up upon hearing the screams from their wide-awake noisy neighbors celebrating the ridiculous dunk by Diallo, who hung on to win the Slam Dunk Contest.
Diallo became the first African to win any event in All-Star Saturday history, wrapping up what was a historic and remarkable day for African basketball. His win was the perfect icing on the cake for Africa who was still basking in the euphoria of the announcement of the BAL.
At the press conference after his win, when asked by the writer whether he thought his win, coupled with the announcement of the BAL was a sign that the black continent was set to emerge out of the shadows of the rest of the developed world, Diallo responded, “Yeah, definitely. If you look around the league, we have a bunch of African players, a bunch of them [are] producing and a bunch of them are great players. My goal for Africa is to try to establish a platform there and try to go back home as much as possible and do things for the community out there and show them what it’s like to be around an NBA player and stuff like that. So, I can’t wait, I’ve got a lot of things planned for Africa this summer.”
Ayotunde Onabolu covered the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina for BballNaija.
Images - The Guardian, NBA, Getty Images, Bleacher Report