Although sport media headlines often accentuate the misdeeds and inappropriate actions of professional athletes, few can doubt the overall national interest in athletic competition and its benefit to America. As a guest of the National Basketball Association (NBA), I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to South Africa for the 2015 NBA Africa Game to witness firsthand the investment and impact of basketball on the entire continent of Africa.
If the influence and outcomes of the NBA Africa Game is any indicator of how sport can foster collaboration, economic development and business partnerships in a community, we all need to immediately rally and support more sport-related entrepreneurial activities.
The NBA Africa Game, a startup venture hosted by NBA Africa in Johannesburg, featured two teams of NBA players: A team of African-born and second-generation African players faced off against a team of players who hail from the U.S, Spain and Montenegro. The highly competitive game was played in a sold out facility that mesmerized the fully engaged African fan-base. The team captains, Chris Paul (Los Angeles Clippers, Wake Forest) and Luol Deng (Miami Heat, Duke), led their teams in a run and shoot battle that was won in the closing minute by Paul’s hot 3-point shooting squad.
The NBA did its best to transform this event such that it mirrored a regular season game located in the USA by shipping in a regulation floor, goals, pregame entertainment and several NBA mascots. Prominent governmental and basketball dignitaries from other African countries, as well as U.S. Ambassador Patrick Gaspard, South African Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, NBA corporate partners and entertainers sat courtside for this historic occasion. The only thing missing at Ellis Arena were the high-tech spotlights and colorful illumination!
The NBA is committed to the global expansion of basketball and has made vast social, economic and political investments in support of this mission. The league includes more than 100 players born or raised outside of the U.S. and has launched charitable efforts such as NBA cares. Since 2001, the NBA has implemented grassroots programming through partnerships with Basketball Without Borders (BWB) and the International Basketball Federation to offer more than 41 BWB camps in 23 cities in 20 countries on five continents!
Having more children play basketball and learn life skills through sport participation is the ultimate mission of the NBA global initiatives. In conjunction with the 2015 NBA Africa Game, the NBA and BWB hosted youth clinics, refurbished a library and donated two basketball courts at the SOS Children’s Village and a Boys and Girls Club at Protea Glen. As a public-private partnership, the NBA worked collaboratively with governmental and community leaders to support the SOS Children’s Village at Ennerdale, which creates and supports the family structure for orphaned and abandoned children. Current NBA players were joined at these events by notable NBA alumni Dikembe Mutumbo, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Curtis “Muggsy” Bogues (Wake Forest), five-time NBA Championship Coach Gregg Popovich, NBA owner RC Slocum, NBA Africa managing director Amadou Fall and NBA Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer.
Similar to global immersion programs, this trip by the NBA players and guests was so much more than the opportunity to teach and expose soccer and cricket aficionados to basketball. South Africa clearly received the sport skills and influence of the NBA brand, but the buzz on the ground centered on how our group was moved by the powerful symbols, monuments and museums throughout the city. The shrines and tributes fully represent the past struggle and determination to unify the country.
The entire NBA contingent felt the impact of President Nelson Mandela’s love, forgiveness philosophy and promotion of an intentional democratic governmental structure. In particular, the visit to the Apartheid Museum was very emotional. The experience brought us seemingly face-to-face with the injustice, horrors and cowardice of a racist power structure. The NBA players in our group were provided with a very unforgettable experiential history lesson that many never received in their U.S. classrooms.
Back home in America, I still feel the drumbeat of Africa from one of the most rewarding business trips one could ever imagine. The inaugural NBA Africa Game reflected Mandela’s spirit and goal to use sport to bring people together. For many years, the South African apartheid regime cleverly manipulated barriers and political policy to uphold the immoral government. However, the country’s minority white population and then-state president FW de Klerk could not understand nor accept the isolation and exclusion imposed by the sporting world. Countries refused to play ball with South Africa. As President Mandela noted, this rejection made the difference.
Peace and the long journey to reconciliation were indeed sparked by the power of sport. We remain ever grateful for this unique platform of sport to touch the hearts of humankind to imagine and build solutions for tomorrow. And isn’t it amazing that basketball remains one of the most effective ways to foster new ideas, increase diversity and promote collaboration?
The possibilities are endless for this children’s game that makes us smile and cheer. A big salute to the NBA for their entrepreneurial spirit to ignite that feeling across the world!