By Ronald Musoke
Juniors give basketball cheerful new look
When the Junior NBA-FUBA League was opened on May 31 at the MTN Arena, Lugogo, Edward Ssekandi, the Vice President of Uganda made only one appeal to the participating schools: to embrace the project in order to develop basketball talent in the country. The maiden Junior NBA League attracted 30 schools from Greater Kampala. Each of the schools was given the opportunity to pick their own ‘franchise’ names basing on the teams which turn out in the American National Basketball League (NBA) in a raffle.
As a result, all the 30 schools got branded with American club names like Lakers, Oklahoma City, and Texas Legends. Each of the schools representing one of the 30 NBA teams received corresponding NBA T-Shirts for their league games that ran for twelve weeks from June through August.
The Junior NBA -FUBA League provided boys aged 12-15 in 30 schools around Kampala as well as their coaches with the opportunity to learn and develop their basketball skills through a competitive league.
The league was divided into the Eastern and Western Conferences with the top 8 teams in each conference qualifying for the playoffs where a single elimination playoff game was played to the final to determine the Junior NB- FUBA League Champions.
Crane High School coach Godwin Okodi told The Independent that he was probably the happiest coach when he learnt that the NBA had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federation of Uganda Basketball Associations (FUBA).
Okodi’s Crane High School Portland Trailblazers have been a joy to watch throughout this junior championship.
They steamrolled all their opponents in the western conference, got into the knock out stages until they qualified for the conference finals on Aug.9 which they lost.
Okodi who has coached basketball over the last eight years said the junior league was always going to be the perfect platform where young players would showcase their talent. “They did not have the chance to play because the senior team does not give them a chance to get onto the school court,” he said.
“The league has done well in exposing the young children to compete.”
His counterpart, Zaid Yahaya Kamal who has been coaching Mashariki High School’s basketball team in the national school championship for the last four years was equally appreciative of the tournament’s organisers.
Kamal was probably the most prepared when FUBA entered the partnership with the NBA to have a junior league run in the country for the next three years. Kamal told The Independent that he had been preparing his under 16-team to play in the under-16 schools championship when he learnt about the NBA-FUBA MOU.
Since most of the players were below 15, he just worked on their papers to have his school feature in the tournament.
“My dream was to get these boys to the finals. I am glad we made it,” Kamal said.
“We opened the league with a win after beating St. Mary’s College Kisubi and we now have the chance to close the league with a win.” Mashariki’s Pelicans will take on the Bucks of Kampala International School Uganda (KISU) on Aug.15 at Lugogo as the first season closes.
Feeding league from below
Edmund Lumu, the match commissar at the final between Crane High and Mashariki but also a senior FUBA official said although the national basketball association has been running an under-16 championship for schools, it lacked a feeder league below.
“This is what the Junior NBA-FUBA League has come to fill; the advantage with it is that it is giving a chance to the junior players who don’t have a chance to play in the senior teams.”
“This has been a problem in the past,” Lumu said.
“It is a good and encouraging project because it will bring down the urge for schools to poach star players from other schools and clubs.”
Grace Kwizera, the project manager for the Junior NBA-FUBA League told The Independent that when the first season comes to an end on Aug. 15, a yet to be named superstar from the NBA will showcase the awards gala for players and teams from the two conferences.
Kwizera noted that the NBA and FUBA have over the last three months partnered with UNICEF to pass the life skills onto the young students.
“Life skills along with basketball were the main points for these players.
“Every weekend that we play; we have had the same sessions; teaching them hygiene, entrepreneurship, financial management and sex education,” he said.
“The idea is to tap into the excitement that the NBA brings and these skills.”
“We intend to teach them basketball fundamentals of what is supposed to be in a basketball game such that by the time they grow, they are consummate players who can benefit financially.”
Going forward, Kwizera said FUBA intends to increase the age group such that there are groups of 12-18 year olds playing in their own leagues alongside the Women’s NBA which would cater for girls.
The schools competing in the league stand chances of getting technical staff from the US-based teams to support them in the future.
Why NBA is courting Africa
In June, NBA superstar, JaVale McGee led a group of 24 American colleagues on a charity visit to Uganda aimed at creating opportunities for children on the edges of society to learn, grow, thrive and lead a healthy and active lifestyle.
Coming along was Amadou Gallo Fall, the NBA Vice President, and director Africa. He said he was impressed with Uganda’s response and hoped that the spirit will continue for the development of basketball in Africa.
“The schools’ discipline, teamwork, leadership, and passion for the game will encourage others to join the sport,” said Gallo.
“We are confident that in the future when this project is successful, we shall have Ugandan players featuring in the lucrative American NBA.”
Recently, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) organized a game featuring a Team Africa against Team World. The game was played on Aug.1 at the Ellis Park Arena in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Gallo said the NBA Game marked a major milestone in their effort on the continent which began more than 30 years ago.
“It is a pivotal moment for the growth of basketball on the continent, and we are grateful to the players, Association players and team personnel who have committed to be part of this historic event.”
The NBA has recognized a growing number of basketball players from the vast continent and has established considerable grassroots efforts—such as the Basketball without Borders—to expose basketball to more people through camps and clinics.
The Basketball without Borders programme is essentially a community outreach project for young people, and is key to expanding the sport’s global outreach. An office was opened in Johannesburg in 2010 to enhance the project. This year’s Basketball without Borders’ initiative ended with the NBA’s first exhibition game in Africa.
Football may still be the number one sport in most of Africa but basketball is growing fast and the NBA has set its sights on the continent to provide future stars, and tomorrow’s fans.
Over the last four months, Gallo, the managing director of the NBA Africa has embarked on a continent-wide tour including stop-overs in Ethiopia, Nigeria, and South Africa.
Gallo told CNN recently that making the game accessible, increasing participation, growing a fan base, is the real priority.
Basketball without Borders takes the top youth players aged 19 and under from all over the world and invites them to train with NBA stars and coaches.
Launched in 2001, the programme aims to promote basketball outside the US and also offers people the chance to develop life skills and education with their mentors.
NBA experts like Masai Ujiri say Africa represents a potentially huge talent pool for the NBA. He has a point. Legends including Dikembe Mutombo from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan’s Manute Bol have their names inscribed in the NBA’s Hall of Fame.
More recently, Chicago Bull’s Sudanese born Luol Deng and Cameroonian Luc Mbah a Monte of Milwaukee Bucks have broken into basketball’s elite league. Ujiri, however, emphasized that that if Africa is going to produce the basketball stars of the future, development needs to start at a young age. Most kids in Africa don’t start playing basketball until they are 13 or 14 years old. This, Ujiri says, puts them at a disadvantage because they lack the instincts and must work harder to develop.