June 23 promises to be the buzziest day of the year for professional basketball, as fans huddle around their screens or crowd into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the NBA draft, when the 30 American and Canadian teams claim the top amateurs coming into the league. For decades the primary source of talent has been US colleges, but in recent years teams have increasingly been looking abroad, hoping to find the next Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), or Serge Ibaka (Congo). A former NCAA player hasn’t won an MVP award since 2018. With that in mind, the NBA has been trying to expand its overseas reach, and nowhere has it been more ambitious than in Africa, where it’s started an entirely new league. This spring, 12 teams from as many countries battled it out for the championship of the Basketball Africa League, the new centerpiece of the NBA’s international ambitions.
The BAL is a joint venture between the National Basketball Association and the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the sport’s global governing body. Last year’s inaugural season was crammed into two weeks because of Covid‑19 concerns. This time around, the dozen squads played 38 games at freshly built arenas in three countries, from March through May. Games aired on NBA TV and a range of broadcast partners, such as ESPN, Canada’s TSN, and China’s Tencent Sports, reaching more than 200 countries in 14 languages.