African boys win Jr NBA international pool, go on to global finals

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, across an ocean and thousands of kilometres from home, a new generation of the world’s basketball players has been ushered in.

The Jr NBA Global Championship tournament has just concluded for the second consecutive year in Orlando, Florida with three-hundred and sixteen 13 and 14-year-old boys and girls from all over the world competing, each assigned to their geographical teams.

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. The boys team in particular had a buzz around them with every player out to make their mark. Last year the boys won the international conference but lost to the United States Central team in the overall championship.

This year, 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 suffered injuries to two players and 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.

“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 we will take [away] from what we did. But they fought their level best and I appreciate that,” Mgunda said.

In Senegal, at the Basketball Without Borders camp a week before 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 of note. While many of the other competing countries have the benefit of developed systems, infrastructure, personnel and funds that have been in place for decades, the African players are mostly novices playing a game that is a novelty on the continent.

The boys’ side had representatives from Senegal, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Nigeria and Egypt. The girls’ team consisted of members from Senegal, Cameroon, DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Egypt and Mozambique. Both teams only trained together for one week before the tournament began.

On the court, the players’ lack of preparation hardly showed. The cohesion of the team could perhaps be chalked up to the fact that the team featured three boys who played in last year’s team: Marouf Moumine, Said Nkene F. Michel (both from Cameroon) and Babacar Djiby Ly (from Senegal), with Moumine and Michel serving as co-captains. It could also be because most of the team speaks French — on the girls’ team there is no clear consensus language.

In the finals played last 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 champions. Moumine, the captain of the team who impressed many last year and who many believe will play professionally in the future, was the leading scorer of the tournament this year. He also won the determination award, one of four awards (the other three being for respect, teamwork and community).

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.”

It’s not difficult to see that they’re doing just that.

READ MORE: The year of the Raptor —Toronto seals historic NBA championship

In the highly charged final, where Jr NBA Global ambassador and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade and NBA commissioner Adam Silver sat front row, the African boys again exhibited their talent by challenging this year’s best team of 13 and 14-year-old boys from America - the US West.

Africa lead for the first half but were dealt a devastating blow when the team’s best player, Moumine, got injured. In the final quarter of the game the US boys started sinking three-point shots and ultimately secured their win, beating the Africans 70-61.

Both the African boys and girls who participated in the tournament will continue to play competitive basketball through initiatives such as Seed Academy, Basketball Without Borders and Jr NBA camps all over the continent.

And encouragingly, for this new generation, there will be a functioning African basketball league - the impending Basketball Africa League due to tip-off in 2020 - by the time they’re eligible to play professionally.

The final can still be streamed on YouTube, on the NBA Africa channel.

Refiloe Seiboko was flown to both Basketball Without Borders in Senegal and the Jr NBA Global Championship in the United States by NBA Africa.

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