The Senegalese exec wants to increase the league’s influence — and he’s got big plans
BY MARC J. SPEARS*
The NBA opened the 2016-17 regular season with 14 of its 114 international players from African countries. NBA Africa vice president and managing director for Africa Amadou Gallo Fall is confident that the rise in popularity and participation of basketball in Africa will not only increase the number of players in the league but also the involvement in the game on all levels.
“Everybody knows who Dikembe Mutombo, Hakeem Olajuwon and Luol Deng is,” Fall told The Undefeated. “But there are also stories like Masai Ujiri that I love promoting to our young people. Here is a guy that didn’t play a minute in the NBA, but yet he is doing great things as president of the Toronto Raptors.
“It shows our young people that there are different avenues to grow in the game. Agent, coaching, being an elite-level general manager. There are so many other walks of life in sports. We talk to our people about not only playing the game, but more importantly being somebody that wants to be successful. Success can mean different things to different people. They work hard, they’re dedicated and they’re disciplined.”
Fall has been leading the NBA Africa charge from Johannesburg since its inception in May 2010. Before then, the former University of District of Columbia center spent 12 years with the Dallas Mavericks as director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs. In 1998, the Senegal native also founded the Sports for Education and Economic Development (SEED) to use education and basketball with boys and girls to grow the next generation of African leaders.
During the recent NBA All-Star weekend in New Orleans, Fall, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association announced that the 2017 NBA Africa Game will take place on Aug. 5 in Johannesburg, two years after the inaugural exhibition. The NBA is slated to open an elite training center in Thies, Senegal, in May for boys and girls at the under-16 and under-18 level. Moreover, the NBA also signed a new multiyear deal with sub-Saharan African broadcaster Econet Media in April 2016 to show more than 500 live NBA and WNBA games, the playoffs, the NBA Finals and other NBA programs on Econet’s pay TV, internet and mobile platforms beginning this season. Every year since 2006, the NBA has selected 60 children from across Africa to participate in a Basketball Without Borders camp on the continent.
Olajuwon, Mutombo and Ujri are the names that typically come to mind when NBA fans think of Africans who have made an imprint on the game. Fall is a lesser known name, but his influence has been the same as he has helped countless Africans use basketball to improve their lives, with many more to come. He took some time to talk to The Undefeated about being the leader in growing the game of basketball from the grass roots in Africa.
Explain what NBA Africa is?
It’s one of 14 NBA offices around the world. We opened in 2010 right before the World Cup in South Africa with a goal of really growing the NBA across Africa. Growing the game of basketball. Making it accessible to young people. Growing a fan base. And ultimately, growing the business of the NBA.
How has the growth of NBA Africa been since 2010?
It started with one person, then two and today we have a team of 14 people. We’ve had rapid growth with a region of 54 countries and territories. We are looking to cover the passion that the young people have for the game of basketball. You see the growing number of African players in the league. We don’t want to take credit for all of that. But certainly the NBA has a commitment to the continent to grow the sport. We signed a partnership last April that gives us the most expansive NBA game broadcasts ever on the continent. It adds to the growing popularity of our sport.
When we opened the NBA office, we wanted to make the game accessible to young people who want to play and fans who want to watch the game. Being on television is a big target for us. We’ve had licenses before. But this past April we entered a television contract for the next five years that is really going to be a game changer for us.
What is the best way to explain your job?
I am overseeing the operations of NBA Africa. My job was to put a team together with people with a different set of expertise from business development to communications and marketing. I was lucky enough to have a colleague in my 20-plus years in the NBA that moved to South Africa with me who was at the league office. He was there at the beginning of the D-League and he is from Ghana originally. So having resources like that at the very beginning was tremendously helpful.
I am from a basketball background. I had to come in and really rapidly transform it wearing a business hat. I spent a lot of time just engaging the different stakeholders in the continent whether it’s sports ministry, basketball federation, to get them aligned and understand our mission. We’ve really worked with them to build the infrastructure across the continent and to just make people aware that basketball is the No. 2 sport globally. The same holds true in Africa. There is an ambassador element to this job. You have to attend meetings. If you’re in a leadership position in any organization, your job is to constantly sell what you’re doing.
We have a great plan in the NBA that is attentive and young people have an infinity to because of the intersections with music, fashion and the whole lifestyle. It helps us with the young people across Africa. Young people are very aware of our players, especially now that there is a growing number of African players in the league. They can participate in the NBA and watch the games through African lenses. The one thing that makes my job even easier is we have all these African players on the continent who are as committed as we are to giving back to their communities with their own camps and inspiring their own communities.
When you have your own [NBA players] like Luc Mbah a Moute, Gorgui Dieng, Joel Embiid, I’m just talking about the younger guys. These guys have come through the Basketball Without Borders [camp]. It’s not hard on selling them on where they come from. They are helping build their own brand with the NBA on their continent. And what I’m most proud of is the impact we’re having in the community in terms of using basketball as a tool to inspire young people. With the values of the game, they are learning discipline, hard work, sportsmanship, all these elements of helping young people in their formative years.
How excited are you about the NBA Africa 2017 game?
I’m extremely excited. We had tremendous success with the first Africa game in 2015. The players that we had really represented for the NBA and did very well. We did what we do best in terms of our outreach in the community. We were doing the game based on 13 years of success with Basketball Without Borders. It was 2003 when we had the first camp … We’ve had a lot of positive impact throughout the continent. The  game was not only broadcasted in Africa, but it was broadcasted on a global basis in over 215 countries.
Having the likes of Chris Paul, Luol Deng, Hakeem, Dikembe participate for not only the fans in the arena … The game was sold out in 90 minutes when it was accounted. There was a lot of learning. A lot of positive feedback. That is why I am excited to do it again at a bigger venue at the TicketPro Dome, which is twice as many seats at 10,000. We’re getting the same interest from players across the league to join our rosters, so we’ll see what we can do. But there is tremendous interest. We are looking forward to giving our NBA fans in Africa the entire NBA experience. Our broadcast partner will broadcast the game throughout the continent. The commitment from the players, legends, coaches and team personnel and we are all looking forward to converging for this game.
Tell me about the NBA Academy Africa that is scheduled to open in May.
NBA Academy Africa is part of the NBA’s global network of elite training centers that we started launching last year in October. There were three centers announced in China, one in India and one in Australia. The one in Africa will be based in Senegal, partnering with the SEED Project, which has been around since 2002, which has done a good job with its resources in training young people by using basketball as an instrument to set seeds to education.
This is the same approach. The approach is going to be holistic, combining elite training with education and implementing leadership and life skills to these young people from across the continent. We’ve already hired two NBA-trained coaches. Essentially, what the academy is going to do is provide a more predictable past for young people aspiring to be at the top in basketball.
If you talked to Hakeem or Dikembe, and mine on a lesser level on how I stumbled into basketball, we didn’t really grow up thinking about being a pro basketball player. All of us started very late. Dikembe didn’t play his first year at Georgetown, he played intramurals. With Hakeem, there was a coach who showed up at his school in Nigeria just to introduce the game. Six months later, he was in Houston and the rest is history. The rap was always the same with raw, African big guys with criticism that they had bad hands. It’s very simple to understand if you don’t grow up using your hands. Everybody grew up playing soccer …
What the academy is going to do and what our grass-roots efforts across the country is going to do is introduce people at a much earlier age to the game. Also, training coaches to understand and teach the fundamentals of the game is going to be huge. Along with that, we’re building an infrastructure where kids can play wherever they want, whenever they want. If we take care of the grass-roots activity through the Junior NBA, which we intend to have in every single country on the continent in the next few years, at the end of the year we will be in 15 countries, that will take care of the base of the pyramid. It’s going to leave young people immersed. We’re also going to spend time with talent identification for the first time. No longer will these [African] players appear from pure luck. There is going to be a deliberate effort and focus to scout talent throughout the continent …
We are trying to establish an ecosystem, too. You realize that everyone is not going to have a seat on an NBA roster. We are working with local federations to build stronger local leagues where all the talent won’t all get to go to the NBA or college. We will have a place [where] they will have a choice to stay home and play in a highly stable and operated league in their own country.
How much is the game of basketball changing and even saving lives in Africa?
I will start with my own story. The game has allowed me to achieve and get to where I am today. My dreams and aspirations were very different growing up. I wanted to go to medical school in the program Doctors Without Borders. The game opened my eyes to realize that whatever I wanted to do through medicine, I can do it faster through sports.
There is a tremendous opportunity that sports provide in terms of building character, opening doors, building access and the rest is really what we continue to see when I look at our brother and good friend Masai Ujiri and what he is doing in Toronto. He is building a model program with the Raptors not only from a standpoint from the players he is able to attract there and draft, just the entire way I see the city of Toronto rally behind the team. He has shown tremendous leadership there and we are very, very proud of him.