Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) shoots against the Phoenix Suns during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
The moment was not lost on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The NBA’s reigning MVP, a Greek of Nigerian descent who is now starring in Milwaukee, was about to make his first two selections of this year’s All-Star Game draft and understood how significant his words would be when they resonated across the world’s second-largest continent.
His first pick: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
“My African brother,” Antetokounmpo said.
His second pick: Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.
“My second African brother,” Antetokounmpo said.
Just like that, a son of Nigerian migrants and two kids who were playing soccer in Cameroon before turning their attention to basketball less than a decade ago became set to take the NBA All-Star stage together. And when they’re all on the floor to start the game in Chicago on Sunday night, it’ll be hard to envision a more significant basketball moment for Africa – a place that the NBA has long believed is a developing hotbed for the next wave of elite talent.
But with Antetokounmpo, Embiid and Siakam – players who will be earning about $90 million combined next season – already among the game’s brightest stars, the argument could be made that Africa is no longer deserving of the “developing” label.
It could be argued that Africa has already arrived.
“If you made me delineate and I had to say one of those two things, I would say that it’s here,” said Brett Brown, Embiid’s coach with the Philadelphia 76ers. “I’ve coached FIBA basketball, I’ve been lucky to go to three Olympic Games and see the world play the sport for three decades now. … And Africa is at the ground level of arriving.”
Of the 24 All-Stars this season, a record eight are representing countries other than the U.S. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is from Slovenia, Utah’s Rudy Gobert is from France, Denver’s Nikola Jokic is from Serbia, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis is from Lithuania and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons is from Australia. Antetokounmpo plays for Greece but also holds a Nigerian passport – both of his parents are Nigerian; they moved to Greece three years before he was born. Siakam and Embiid come from Cameroon’s two largest cities; Embiid is from Yaounde, Siakam from Douala.
For years, China was considered the NBA’s future hotbed – and economically, that has been the case. But China is still a long way from sending a second big name to the NBA after Yao Ming, while Africa has no shortage of elite talent in the league right now.
“There is a lot of pride in this for all of us,” Embiid said.
And this week the NBA is marking the 10th anniversary of opening its first office in Africa, that being in Johannesburg. The NBA’s investment in Africa has grown considerably since, and even French President Emmanuel Macron was moved to commit 12 million Euros ($13.1 million USD) in 2018 toward aiding youth sport programs in Africa – noting that some African heads of state had told him basketball can serve as a bridge between nations and cultures.
In March, the new Basketball Africa League – backed by the NBA – is set to begin play. The 12 teams that will participate in the inaugural BAL season will be announced Saturday in Chicago, at an event where BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall will speak and unveil their uniforms.
And to further underscore Africa’s appetite for NBA content, Sunday’s game will be aired in no fewer than 42 nations on the continent.
“The Dream Team started it, and it just led right into us playing here,” Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan said in Paris last month, before his team faced Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. “Now you’ve got two different teams playing. We’ve got China. We’ve got Africa now. So the game is expanding all over the globe.”
Players from at least 11 different African nations are represented in the NBA this season, and the league is constantly looking for more. There’s an NBA Academy in Senegal. NBA scouts have been to places like Mozambique and Morocco in recent months. And it’s not just boys who are on the radar — the women’s game is also developing rapidly in Africa and will likely see a big boost by Nigeria’s national team giving the U.S. women all they could handle before falling 76-71 in a World Cup qualifier on Sunday.
The Nigerians, who will play in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, celebrated on-court after that game anyway.
“I just hope we’ve killed the overarching stigma that Africa never sends their best team (to the Olympics) and when they do it’s not of any substance,” Nigeria women’s coach Otis Hughley Jr. said. “I hope we’re eating away at that stigma, at that assumption and that there will be at least a modicum of respect for the team that comes out of Africa. I hope this is the first day of something greater than what’s going on now.”
Embiid and Siakam are both alums of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program, and as has been the case at the past few All-Star weekends, BWB will have a presence in Chicago as well. Among the 64 boys and girls invited to play at this weekend’s camp: children from Angola, Egypt, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, the Congo and the Central African Republic.
Siakam will be among the coaches at this weekend’s camp. He and Raptors President Masai Ujiri speak often about ways to keep developing the game in Africa; it has long been a passion project for Ujiri, whose roots are Nigerian. On the night last June when Toronto won the NBA Finals for the first time, Ujiri did a wave of television interviews with a Nigerian scarf draped over his shoulders.
“Masai and the NBA and everyone is doing their part, promoting the game on the continent and making sure that we continue to tell young players and young kids that it’s possible, it’s something that they can do,” Siakam said.
It’s unfair to say that there will be another Antetokounmpo, Embiid or Siakam in that group. But to Boston’s Tacko Fall, who didn’t even like basketball before his grandmother in his native Senegal made him watch the NBA — the first game he remembers was an All-Star Game, in fact — the bigger point is that more and more African kids get to see the opportunity the game provides.
“It’s amazing and it shows any African kid that if you have that hunger, you can get here,” Fall said. “Joel has taken steps forward every year. Pascal is now an All-Star starter. That means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to the entire continent.”