Road to Juba

Still a relative newcomer to the continent, basketball in Africa has grown to become both a part of an international exchange and a key to the local community. The sport is, for example, an important tool in educating people about fitness and encouraging aspiration – but it’s also much more than that.

Much of the rise in basketball’s popularity is due to Senegal’s SEED Project (Sports Education for Economic Development), which was founded 13 years ago by Amadou Gallo Fall, the current head of NBA Africa. Another boost came from Hoops 4 Hope, started by Mark Crandall and Thierry Kita in South Africa in 1984. Since 2002, hundreds of Senegalese players have attended the SEED Academy, with 75 per cent of their alumni graduating from college or university (compared with five per cent for the national population).

In 2013, Senegal’s native hero and SEED alumnus Gorgui Dieng’s selection in the first round of the NBA Draft announced not only Africa’s growing presence in professional basketball but, more importantly, basketball’s growing popularity in Africa. In addition to Dieng, the 2013 NBA Draft saw three other players with direct ties to Africa – Victor Oladipo (Nigeria), Dennis Schroeder (Gambia) and the Greek player Giannis Antetokounmpo (of Nigerian descent) whose older brother Thanasis also plays in the NBA – selected in the first round.

In this year’s draft, Cameroon’s Joel Embiid was picked at number three, the highest since Nigerian-American Hakeem Olajuwon was picked at number one in 1984. Many saw them as following in the footsteps of African basketball titans such as ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon, Manute Bol and Dikembe Mutombo – a clear indication that the firepower of this new collective is more than changing the fate of African basketball, these players are joining the ranks of stars like Luol Deng, Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo. They will lead the next wave of African talent to the world stage.

French New Yorker Michka Bengio has been an avid fan of the sport since his childhood in Strasbourg – ‘I was basically in awe of the 1992 American Dream Team’ – and has played, coached and refereed ever since. ‘Basketball became my life somehow; I just became completely obsessed with it,’ he admits. A seasoned hospitality consultant, Bengio was a key member in numerous projects such as Serge Becker’s Miss Lily’s Jamaican restaurant and is currently involved in supporting Ladurée as it develops in the US, but his love of basketball remains a constant. On learning about the African basketball initiative, he immediately decided to get involved.

During a conversation with his close friend and fellow basketball devotee Victor Abbass, a Sudanese-born Lost Boy who was among some 20,000 orphaned or displaced refugees during the second Sudanese civil war, Bengio asked Abbass what it was like to play back home. ‘He told me there were only two courts, one for the army and one for the community. So that was the real meaning of “sudden death”,’ Bengio explained. ‘If you lose a game today you have to wait until tomorrow to play again.’

In February this year, Bengio founded Inbound, a non-profit organisation dedicated to building and renovating self-sustaining basketball courts throughout Africa, alongside creative and communications director Peter-Charles Bright, and Abbass. Amadou Fall has also been a strong supporter. Bengio’s initial targets for the Inbound ‘Road to Juba’ project are Senegal’s Kaolack, home to the tallest people in the country, and South Sudan’s Juba. Bengio says, ‘What really links everyone is the passion surrounding the sport, the determination to take it to the next level and a basic and very human desire to do something good.’ He continues, ‘I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the support from the international basketball community, and am so grateful to Amadou, the SEED Project, Kita, Brooks, the NBA and FIBA family for welcoming me with open arms and helping to guide me through this process. We don’t speak often enough about the wonderful and charitable work they do behind closed doors.’ The basketball movement is about Africans for Africans, as Bengio explains.

‘The community is very tight and they’re driven by two things – the love for the game and the love for Africa, and getting it to a better place.’

Inbound was founded on a model that is primarily community-oriented. Its core concept is a response to the lack of infrastructure that is desperately needed within disadvantaged communities in Africa – specifically the lack of communal facilities. Its main mission is to bridge the gap between the relative absence of public courts and playgrounds and the elite facilities that already exist. It is also an avenue for other non-profit and leadership organisations, such as SEED, to facilitate the implementation of their own programmes, including educational and health initiatives designed to benefit young Africans.

The immediate goal is to refurbish two basketball courts and transform an adjacent area into an events space, which would include locker rooms for players and coaches. ‘The physical idea of the court itself automatically creates a sense of community – it’s just a natural magnet,’ says Bengio. ‘And the way we build our courts is very singular because we create an ecosystem around them, where conferences and small businesses and even political forums can all participate. Then all the profits generated go directly back to the courts.’

The structure for the court in Kaolack is already in place, although in urgent need of repair. At present, one varsity team is practising there, as well as an after-school programme that has been coached for the past 16 years by Yaye Khoury, one of the leading lights in women’s basketball in Africa. Around 95 boys and girls play there year-round. Once renovated, the Kaolack facility would be the premier basketball hub and forum in the region. ‘Basketball engages the kids, keeps them off the street and gives them a discipline and maybe even something to dream for,’ says Bengio.

‘And the idea is to train future leaders more than just future basketball players, to cultivate a culture of progress and education and ambition.’

From the surrounding area, four other cities would hold their team practices on site, which includes a total of six teams and 750 participants. If all goes as planned, Kaolack is slated to play host to league games and tournaments, generating revenue for the club and the city itself, which currently owns the court. But according to Bengio, this is just the beginning. ‘By 2015, we want to build 10 courts in five different countries,’ he explains. ‘And the idea is that they will sustain each other, that they will form an intersection and a safe haven for kids to develop their athletic techniques, life skills and achieve things they may not have thought possible before.’

Bengio made his inaugural trip to South Africa in August 2013 and then to Senegal last May for the Hoop Forum alongside accomplished photographer and basketball enthusiast Kevin Couliau, whom he contacted through Instagram after seeing his Doin’ It In The Park documentary. ‘I asked if he’d be interested in coming with me,’ recalls Bengio, ‘and he said, “Just tell me when and where. I’ve got my camera ready, I’m there.”’

It was Bengio’s first time in Africa and his first time watching basketball played on African soil. ‘What was interesting to me in seeing how the sport was played in Africa versus the US was this incredible intensity and extreme motivation. There’s absolutely nothing negative about it. When I watched them blocking each other and defending, I thought they were about to get into a fight. But after the game it was just a brotherly vibe, just a purity of spirit and a genuine devotion to the sport.’

Sport, when taken to a professional level, can become the equivalent of a passport. ‘It’s an opportunity to get out,’ says Bengio. ‘At the same time, the mindset is, “I really hope I get into the academy or one of the programmes, but I hope that you get in too.” In America, it’s more like, “I’m going to crush you.”’

Statistics show that more and more leagues are forming, and the Ministry of Sports has been proactively supporting the sport’s growth and development. Bengio brings up the fact that for years African players were mainly blockers because of their height, but not necessarily scorers due to a low level in coaching and the fact that that skill wasn’t being taught and emphasized. ‘In basketball there is an expression, “You can’t teach height.” If you’re born with it, use it,’ says Bengio. ‘In his first college game, Dikembe Mutombo, the NBA Congolese-American player, did maybe eight blocks in four minutes, and the coach was like, “Oh wow… am I really seeing this?” But now what a lot of leagues are doing is training the players to become shooters, point guards and forwards. It’s really encouraging to see that evolution.’ 

Besides their loyalty to basketball, the players’ focus remains on allegiance to country, and to home culture.

This new brigade, more committed to shaping a collective vision than claiming an individual spotlight, has been building a steady following during a time when basketball is reaching new heights. The world over, Africa is still misperceived, misrepresented and misunderstood in many ways. Yet these young ballers are ushering in a renaissance for a new fanbase, and opening unexpected windows of opportunity to change perception and even rewrite, in their own way, the story of sports in Africa. If you ask these players where they’re from, they’ll say, “I’m African”, rather than “I’m Senegalese” or “I’m South Sudanese”,’ Bengio notes. ‘It’s interesting because I don’t tell people I’m European; I say I’m French. So it’s a very united mentality they’re coming from – as in we’re all in this together, we’re all trying to lift up the continent, and we happen to be basketball junkies.’

‘It’s an incredible time for basketball and an incredible time for Africa,’ Bengio says. ‘You know sports can be seen as a luxury when you look at areas in need of clean water, of sustainable housing, and that needs to be addressed. But what sports is capable of doing is bringing a possibility and a platform for the future of these kids.’ Bengio recalls his first trip to South Africa, and the moment when he felt his still-loosely formed vision begin to crystallise. ‘I got off a long, long flight. I lost all my luggage. The shower at my hotel didn’t work. I went straight to a meeting with a non-profit organisation and saw these kids playing basketball in a landscape I’d never experienced before. I don’t think there was anything purer than that, for me,’ he said. ‘It was basketball, it was education, it was the land – there was something very meaningful about it. I was probably a little delirious from the jet lag and everything, but it was a mental opening for me, followed by an immense pressure to get this thing done.’

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