Exclusive Q&A: Basketball Africa League President Amadou Gallo Fall discusses launch of new NBA-affiliated league in Africa

NBA/FIBA partnership delivers new pro Basketball Africa League (BAL) tipping off on 16 May in Kigali, Rwanda. 
By Tom Kirkland

Amadou Gallo Fall has played an integral part in developing basketball in Africa for years.

Now, in his latest role as President of the Basketball Africa League (BAL), the Senegalese exec is once again helping to push the game's growth on the continent to new heights by leading the efforts to build a comprehensive basketball ecosystem in Africa.

The new league will begin play on 16 May in Kigali, Rwanda.

A graduate of the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. (where he also played center for the Firebirds), Fall previously worked with the NBA's Dallas Mavericks as their director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs before joining the NBA as its vice president of development in Africa.

In 2019, the NBA appointed Fall as president of the BAL.

"The BAL is really the culmination of everything that I've been blessed to be involved in. It’s another important milestone in helping to grow basketball in Africa, and this league will provide an opportunity for talented, young African players to showcase their skills at home in prime time. And the opportunity is incredible," Fall told olympics.com ahead of the historic launch.

The competition marks the NBA’s first league collaboration with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to operate outside of North America, and replaces the Africa Basketball League as the top league in Africa.

"The BAL is going to be one of the top professional basketball leagues in the world," says Fall.

BAL history

The launch of the BAL is the latest move in a long series of initiatives launched by the NBA to help develop basketball in Africa, which have included Basketball Without Borders camps and opening an NBA office in Johannesburg in 2010 and an NBA Academy Africa in 2017.

The investment has paid dividends as more and more players with African heritage continue to star on NBA teams. At the 2020 NBA Draft alone, 13 players of African origin were selected. Two players - Precious Achiuwa and Udoka Azubuike - were born in Nigeria.

The BAL is made up of 12 teams from across the continent, with at least eight players on the 16-man roster citizens of their respective team’s home country, while four players can be from other countries (including a maximum of two players from outside of Africa). One team, Rwanda’s Patriots B.B.C., has used this rule to sign American rap star J. Cole, signifying just how much international interest the new league is already generating.

In an exclusive interview, Fall spoke with Olympics.com to discuss the launch of the new league, basketball in Africa, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and more.

Below is a transcript of that interview, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Olympics.com (OC): You've worked in numerous and varied roles in basketball, including for an NBA franchise, and the league itself. When you think back on your career and accomplishments, what are you most proud of?

Amadou Gallo Fall (AGF): It’s been a long journey. As a young boy from Kaolack, Senegal, who grew up having no idea that sport could take me where I am today, it’s been incredible. And to think that there’s a whole journey ahead in our effort and drive to build our team, to continue to contribute to Africa and its growth. I think having a platform to be able to speak to young people is very humbling and exciting, and we have an opportunity to do that and positively impact people’s lives through sport, just as my life has been impacted by basketball.

OC: What is your first memory playing basketball?

AGF: My brother bought me a basketball when he was studying in France. My brother is 2.08m (6’10), 108kg (240lbs), but never played - even though teams were coming to him asking him to play! But he was focused on his education and he kept saying his young brother could probably play someday. So he brought me a ball. So I took my new ball to my high school in my neighbourhood, but I have to climb over the walls to get to the court, and I start shooting around but then someone came and chased me out of the building. It wasn’t good, knowing that there’s this beautiful, clean court that people are only allowed to use about seven times a year. I think the whole experience really made an impression on my interest in wanting to make sure that young people who want to play the game have access to it.

OC: And what about the Olympics? Can you recall your first memory of the Games?

AGF: I believe it was the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. I remember seeing an incredible level of competition from different countries, even countries that you haven’t heard about a lot. For me, when you’re talking about sports and diplomacy, the Olympics are where nations that you don’t really hear much about have an opportunity to shine. I think the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics is the one I remember really well as a basketball fan. There were some great players there, obviously Michael Jordan with Team USA, and you root for the U.S. as the dominant basketball nation, but it’s good for the game to have other countries that compete and have a chance to win.

And of course, I will always remember The Dream Team. What an incredible feat to put that team together, and see these stars play as a team. That’s what won the world over because these gentlemen were able to show everyone what teamwork is all about. For many people, the Olympic Games made you fall in love with the Olympic spirit. And as we see the NBA becoming more and more of a truly global league, with close to 30 percent of the players coming from outside of the U.S., I think that explains a lot of the growth and impact on international teams as well.

OC: This is an exciting time for you as the BAL is set to begin. What does the launch of the league mean to you?

AGF: The BAL is really the culmination of everything that I've been blessed to be involved in. It’s another important milestone in helping to grow basketball in Africa, and this league will provide an opportunity for talented, young African players to showcase their skills at home in prime time. And the opportunity is incredible.

As you know, this league is going to be an economic growth engine. What we mean by that is, you can create employment not only for the players who have come through the system, but also for coaches, referees, sports broadcasters, people who work in sports medicine - there is a lot of opportunity for jobs. It’s the first step, and there is still a lot of work to do, but we are really excited about it.

OC: What are the biggest challenges facing the BAL?

AGF: Obviously, this is a unique year, given the state of the world at the moment [with the COVID-19 pandemic]. We were initially set to launch in March 2020, and then we postponed to December 2020. And this will be the biggest thing: navigating through strict medical protocol. We have to put the health and safety of everyone involved with the BAL as our first priority.

The good news is there's so much excitement and a great spirit of collaboration because this is a partnership between the NBA and BAL, and the fact that we can create it because we are working with national federations across the continent makes it so much easier for us.

We understand that the NBA is the pinnacle of professional basketball, and for us, we see that as a responsibility to make sure we shine a spotlight on our entire sport on a global basis. I think the fact that we chose Africa to start this project [the BAL] is a testament to the opportunity we see on the continent - not only because of the talent here, but also because of the buy-in we have from national federations, governments and stakeholders to really build this product. The BAL is going to be one of the top professional basketball leagues in the world.

OC: We recently spoke with Mike Brown, the head coach of the Nigerian men’s team, and he echoed your comments about the deep talent pool in Africa. From your perspective, what can Coach Brown and the Nigerian team do in the basketball tournament at Tokyo 2020?

AGF: They [Nigeria] have a legitimate chance of advancing and being on the podium. Teams from Africa are no longer going to these international competitions (whether it’s the Olympics, the World Cup, etc.,) just being happy to have qualified and participate. And we know that there are players from all over the world who have an interest in representing their countries because they understand the power of sport.

Read more about how Nigeria can help grow basketball in Africa at Tokyo 2020 here.

That’s why this basketball ecosystem is so important, so young people who participate in the sport from an early age understand that there is a way for them to stay involved in the game, even if they’re too old to play it. There are a lot of former players who are now working at NBA franchises, in video rooms, in broadcasting, in strength and conditioning roles. There are so many job opportunities in Africa. We have to open our minds to sports and we spend a lot of time talking to government officials, heads of states, to really encourage sports in the country to not see it only as recreation, but as an industry.

There is an opportunity to build a robust basketball industry on the continent that will create jobs and that will add to GDP of many countries. There is an opportunity for a vast amount of staff to contribute to building this industry, make a living and create a product that will be here for the ages.

OC: Do you feel the launch of the BAL can also help promote equality and other social initiatives in Africa?

AGF: On March 8 - International Women’s Day - NBA Africa and the BAL launched our social justice initiative in Africa, focused on combatting gender-based violence and empowering girls and women to reach their potential in the same manner as young boys.

In fact, all our development initiatives across the continent are done across gender. We have young girls coming through our NBA academies in Africa, and many of them are receiving scholarships to go and play in the U.S. The women’s game is very popular on the continent. In 2019, at the Women’s Afrobasket final between Senegal and Nigeria, the arena was completely sold out. There were five thousand people outside - they had to set up viewing screens outside! So this just shows you how much passion and interest there is in the women’s game in Africa.

OC: The upcoming launch of the BAL has generated a lot of international interest - how do you think the league can help showcase African basketball and culture to the world?

AGF: Africa is a unique region and a perfect place to get this [the BAL] started. I really think that basketball is a perfect sport, where fashion, music and sports come together. And just look at how the African ‘lifestyle’ and popular culture have been an influence on the global stage, from music to fashion - we have an opportunity to bring all of that together around the BAL.