Basketball is progressing in Africa and so is the talent of the youth playing it, Refiloe Seiboko reports from Orlando, Florida
Somewhere in the United States, thousands and thousands of kilometres from home, a new generation of basketball players is being ushered in.
The Jr NBA Global Championship tournament which is underway for the second consecutive year in Orlando, Florida, is a youth basketball tournament for the top 13- and 14-year-old boys and girls from around the world. Three-hundred and sixteen teenagers have been competing and the semifinals began on Saturday.
Before the tournament began director of basketball operations at NBA Africa Kita Matungulu told the Mail & Guardian that the African team had to be taken seriously, that it was not just about participating. The boys team particularly had a buzz around them from the beginning of the tournament and everyone on the team wanted to make their mark on the competition.
In the girls division, Africa made it to the penultimate stage. In the knockout quarterfinals, they edged out China 39-29 and went on to play Latin America in the semis where they lost 44-36, ending their tournament.
Despite not being the strongest competitors in their division, the girls visibly matured and strengthened with each game, playing like the “tough girls” head coach Bahati Moses Mgunda believes them to be.
After their tournament exit, the girls were palpably low-spirited despite only losing by eight points. Mgunda told the M&G: “It’s tough to handle … Our opponents played better than us [but] I’d like to thank the girls for how they played in the last game. They stuck to the plan we had but at the end we got some injuries — I think that’s what will will take [away] from what we did. But they fought their level best and I appreciate that.”
On the boys’ end, they thrashed Mexico 70-36 in the quarterfinals to get them to the semifinals to face Asia Pacific. Despite this thrashing, assistant coach Edson Saranga said the game wasn’t their best. “It’s not just about running and jumping and driving to the basket. We have to play good basketball.”
In Senegal, at the Basketball Without Borders camp ahead of the tournament, Congo-born NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo made sure to remind the teams what their objective was. “You’re not going to Orlando to see Mickey Mouse. You’re going to represent Africa well.” he said. Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, fresh off his own team’s NBA championship win, reiterated the sentiment, telling the teams in no uncertain terms: “You go and you win.”
Even with the expectations being set high for the African teenagers, their having made it even as far as the semifinals is an accomplishment to be noted.
While the other competing countries have the benefit of developed systems, infrastructure, personnel and funds that have been in place for decades at the very least, the African players are mostly novices playing a game that is a novelty on the continent.
Most have only played the game for a couple of years yet have now found themselves here, competing on the world stage for their age group.
Almost all of them have never left their country let alone Africa until now and speak only basic English — translators are part of team personnel for the tournament.
On the boys’ side are representatives from Senegal, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Nigeria and Egypt. On the girls’, Senegal, Cameroon, DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt and Mozambique. Both teams only trained together for one week before the tournament began and they were sent off to the US to compete.
This is particularly fascinating when watching the boys’ team, who play with such ease of flow that it’s baffling to understand that, for the most part, they really don’t know each other. The cohesion of the team can perhaps be chalked up to the fact that the team features three boys who played in last year’s team (and made it to the finals): Marouf Moumine, Said Nkene F. Michel (both from Cameroon) and Babacar Djiby Ly (from Senegal), with Moumine and Michel serving as captains. It could also be because most of the team speaks French — on the girls’ team there is not much of a consensus language.
“Sometimes you play good basketball and you lose. Sometimes you play bad and you win,” boys coach Saranga noted ahead of the semifinals, unknowingly foreshadowing the boys’ semifinal. They played an uncharacteristically choppy game littered with fouls and even a technical foul — which resulted in Djiby Ly having to sit out part of the game in the second half — but still managed to clean things up and secure a 66-55 win to put them in the finals.
In those finals, played on Saturday afternoon, the African boys faced off with Canada, eventually dominating them to a final score of 80-45 — in effect securing the title of international boys champion.
Moumine, the captain of the team, who impressed many and won the determination award at the competition last year after Africa won the international conference but lost to the US Central team in the overall championship, is the leading scorer of the entire tournament this year.
His head coach, Samba Fall, who was assistant coach last year, told the media after the team’s victory that he was happy about the achievement but still focused on his initial objective. “This is a big experience for us, this back-to-back final. Last year we came here and got to the final and this year I think all of the kids understand that [better]. Our goal is to win the championship this year.”
He also noted that this new generation of players is changing the narrative of Africans not being able to compete on an international level. “If you go back and look, 10 years ago, every time [in world championships] Africa, would get beaten by 20, 30, 50 points. But I told the kids: ‘That’s done. You guys, this generation, have to change that’ and I think we’re doing a good job.”
The boys will play the US West team in the Jr NBA Global Championship final on Sunday at 10.30pm (CAT).