The Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy hosted a workshop on the intersection of basketball and diplomacy in Africa, a wide-ranging examination of the sport’s twenty-first century takeover of the continent and its implications for the uses of basketball diplomacy (#hoopsdiplomacy) as the National Basketball Association (NBA) launches its first league outside of North America this January, the Basketball Africa League (BAL).
The intersection of basketball and diplomacy, where communication, representation, and negotiation occur on and off the court, has a long history, but its incorporation by the NBA is a more recent phenomenon that dates to its first overseas trips in the 1980s (China, Soviet Union). Terry Lyons, former SVP, NBA International, recalled those first trips. “Sports diplomacy was part of our lives,” he said. “It was ingrained in everything we did. We felt that it was a very important part of basketball.”
Yet, as he pointed out, at the time, nobody recognized their actions as a form of sports diplomacy.
Similar sentiments were echoed by former Team Britain player Pops Mensah-Bonsu, whose professional career spanned the globe, from the NBA to Europe, and who daily communicated, represented, and negotiated with international teammates, staff, coaches, and fans. Yet, as Mensah-Bonsu pointed out, the informal people-to-people exchanges he had through basketball helped him build important bridges.
“What makes basketball diplomacy so appealing is that it shows the differing cultures that exist amongst the team,” he said. “Having that kind of diversity can prove beneficial for the team’s chemistry, but it can also be a detriment if not utilized the right way.”
With an eye on the January 2020 launch of the BAL, the afternoon session examined what basketball diplomacy means today in and for the African continent. Youcef Ouldyassia, who hosts an NBA show on television broadcaster Canal + and produces documentary films, relayed how he’s witnessed the growth and impact of the game in Africa. “People are playing the game all over the 54 African countries,” he said. “It’s really common to see kids or adults with a ball under their arm. Every playground is full.”
It helps that there are now African-produced basketball heroes who ignite hoops dreams across the continent. One such example is recent NBA Champion Toronto Raptors’ Pascal Siakam, a player who grew up in the same conditions many others did in Cameroon and who helps fuel the sport’s growth. “Any kid in Africa is able to touch the dream of playing in the NBA,” Ouldyassia said. “They can dream again, no matter what happens around them.”
But what about the BAL’s ability to further ignite and enhance a pan-African identity in its representation of the continent? For Mensah-Bonsu, there’s a lot of optimism in basketball and the BAL’s potentials. “I feel that basketball diplomacy in Africa will further bridge the gap between Africa and the rest of the world,” he said. “Africa is a continent that is rich in culture, resources, and talent; with the new BAL it will allow for the cultivation of everything that Africa has to offer.”