The African basketball championship might lack star power — even electrical power on occasion — but with national pride at stake, it almost always entertains.
AfroBasket, which tipped off on Friday in Senegal and Tunisia, cannot be compared to a glitzy event like the NCAA tournament.
Senegal’s aging national stadium in the capital, Dakar, for example, has no air conditioning.
A recent women’s AfroBasket game in Mali was paused because of a power cut.
The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) turned to Senegal and Tunisia as emergency cohosts of this men’s championship just two months ago because the Republic of the Congo backed out, as did replacement host Angola.
The 16-team tournament was pushed back to this month, too close to training camps for many Africans who play in the NBA.
Tunisia hosted in August 2015, two months after 38 people were killed in a terrorist attack at a beach resort.
As a precaution, games were moved to Rades, outside the capital, Tunis.
The tournament still carries on, as it has done since 1962.
“They always end up finding a way and it always ends up being a great tournament, so we must find a way to improve it, to get more out of it,” said Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian who is president of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors. “I’ve played in that tournament. I’ve coached in it. It’s an unbelievable feeling. There’s a remarkable atmosphere. I wish more people knew about it.”
Arenas are abuzz with drumming, dancing and flag waving. Boisterous Senegalese supporters packed Marius Ndiaye Stadium on Friday hours before their team took the floor, which was painted just three days earlier.
Even referees seem to feel it.
In a March qualifier, a Malian player sank a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer against Senegal, pulled off his jersey and sprinted toward fans as if he had scored a goal at the soccer World Cup.
No technical foul.
Wearing national colors is serious business for players, some of whom have grandparents who lived under colonial oppression.
“I take pride in it,” said Senegal’s Maurice Ndour, who played for the New York Knicks last season. “It will be my first time playing in Senegal in front of the home crowd. It’s huge.”
Senegal, with Minnesota Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng on board, will be under pressure to win the title, something they have not done since 1997.
Angola are 11-time African champions and have not missed the final since 1997.
Nigeria captured their first title at the previous AfroBasket in 2015.
Tunisia won in 2011, but will play without Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri, who said that the Mavericks preferred that he rest a sore knee.
Tunisia are to host the knockout phase after this weekend’s flurry of games in Dakar and Rades.
AfroBasket also provides a qualification path to FIBA’s world championship in 2019 and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Top players sometimes opt out because of scheduling conflicts and, especially, their national federations’ unwillingness to pay for insurance.
Other NBA players not going are Cameroonians Joel Embiid, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Pascal Siakam, as well as the Congo’s Bismack Biyombo and Emmanuel Mudiay.
NBA and other scouts are expected, so players like 25-year-old Ndour, now a free agent, can help themselves as they help their teams. Carlos Morais of Angola was invited to the Raptors’ training camp after earning MVP honors at the 2013 African championship.
Silvio De Sousa, who has committed to Kansas for next year, is suiting up for Angola.
Joe Lopez, president of the SEED Academy, said many participants play professionally, “but you have two or three that will be discovered.”
He pointed to SEED student Privat Koyamba, 19, of the Central African Republic.
“This will be for him a golden opportunity to showcase his talent,” said Lopez, who was the starting center on Senegal’s victorious team in 1978.
SEED is an international non-governmental organization in Senegal that trains promising young players with a goal to build future leaders.
Reggie Moore, born and raised in California and a naturalized Angolan, said AfroBasket play is “very physical,” but he was not worried about the lack of air conditioning.
“It’s not a big deal. We’re used to it,” said Moore, a 2m power forward and Oral Roberts University alum.
Despite Africa’s basketball potential, Ujiri said that mismanagement threatens to stall progress.
Uriji said governments must take responsibility for neglected stadiums and subpar sports programs.
Leaks in the Dakar stadium’s roof were patched up 48 hours before the tournament with the rainy season in force.
“We’re [Africa] moving forward in technology, we’re moving forward in banking, we’re moving forward in real estate,” Uriji said. “While these things are getting better, sports are being left behind. How is that possible?”
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