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Joakim Noah wants to ‘change the narrative’ about African basketball

Former NBA All-Star with Cameroonian roots has invested in the Basketball Africa League: ‘This is opening up doors that I didn’t know were possible while I was playing’

The NBA has had African American owners among its former stars with Michael Jordan with the Charlotte Hornets, and Grant Hill and Dwyane Wade as part owners of the Atlanta Hawks and Utah Jazz, respectively, and Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal previously owning a minority share in the Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings, respectively. Perhaps lesser-known are also some former NBA stars who have invested in the NBA’s Basketball Africa League.

Hill, Junior Bridgeman, Luol Deng, Dikembe Mutombo, and Joakim Noah are all former NBA stars who have invested in the BAL. Investor funding has gone to the growth of the BAL and the NBA’s presence and engagement across the continent. The BAL will embark on its third season with 12 teams from 12 countries starting Saturday in Dakar, Senegal, also playing 38 games in Cairo, and Kigali, Rwanda, over three months.

Noah’s pride in being an investor and supporter of the BAL runs as strong as his family ties to Africa. His family, which includes his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah, is from Yaoundé, Cameroon.

“I had just retired from basketball. Just finished the [NBA] bubble. I knew that my career was over and right away there was an opportunity to invest in BAL. I jumped on it,” Joakim Noah, 38, recently told Andscape in a phone interview. “This was something that was very important to me on so many levels. I had been going back to Africa once a year since I was a kid on family trips, going to visit my grandfather, my great-grandmother. So, my heritage was there in Cameroon. I was spending a lot of time there. And it was always very tough because every time I wanted to do things on the continent I always felt very alone, and I saw how alone my father was as well, in terms of doing work on the continent, especially when it came to basketball.

“I knew that BAL as a platform would definitely inspire … It brings me back to my family heritage and the bridge of being able to have people from my family in America and being able to connect the dots back to the continent. This is something that’s very special. More than just a basketball league. I knew that this would be something that would be unique and special on so many levels.”

Noah plans to attend BAL games played in Senegal and Rwanda this season. The following is a Q&A with the two-time NBA All-Star as he talks deeper about his African lineage, refurbishing a court in Cameroon, his hopes for the growth of basketball in Africa, BAL president Amadou Fall’s impact on basketball on the continent, his NBA career and much more during a recent interview with Andscape.

Former NBA player Joakim Noah talks to prospects at the Basketball Africa League combine in Paris in January.

Basketball Africa League

Most NBA fans of yours probably think of you being from France and you were born in the United States. But your family is from Cameroon on your father’s side. Just tell me about the history of your family in Cameroon.

My father was born in France. But his father was a soccer player from Cameroon, and [my father] ended up living there until he was 11 years old. And then, Arthur Ashe found my father. My dad was playing with a wood racket and Arthur was doing a tour around Cameroon and ended up [mentoring] my dad and investing in his career. Gave him his first tennis racket and paid for his education to go to a tennis academy in France. And that’s where his journey as a tennis player started. And because he was able to have the career that he did, my father was able to take his kids later to travel. We would go to Cameroon every year. So, some of my favorite childhood memories were always going back to this piece of land in the heart of Yaoundé [Cameroon], where actually my great-grandfather had land and my father kept it alive and built tennis courts and built a swimming pool and a restaurant.

We built something sustainable. We call it ‘Village Noah.’ It’s where my grandfather, my great-grandfather [are] buried. My grandmother also built a beautiful school there. It’s a beautiful preschool of 150 kids. So, it’s a place that we’re very proud of. It’s our heritage and it’s a place I haven’t brought my kids yet. But I’m very excited to bring them. And we built a basketball court there and we just unveiled the court a couple weeks ago. Amadou was there. Everybody from NBA Africa was there. We did a coaches’ clinic. So, everything’s moving and putting in work on the continent really gives me a lot of purpose and it feels like I’m moving in the right direction. I’m very proud to be from there and I’m very happy to watch the growth.

What were your fondest memories as a child making trips to Cameroon with the privilege of being a tennis pro’s son?

My fondest memories was going to see my family from a land that was different than everybody else. It was different being from France and being from New York, and then being able to go to Africa. I knew that was a privilege in itself, but it’s true. My father was probably one of the most known people in Cameroon. So, there was always a lot of love around him, a lot of attention around him. But I also realized that this was part of growing up in my clan. So, if you think that he had to deal with something similar, his father being a soccer player, being a champion soccer player, and then dad winning the Roland Garros [French Open] also gave him a status. As a kid, you take those things for granted.

But my favorite memories were definitely just spending time with my dad running on the beach in Kribi, which is a little fisherman village, and just music, culture, the food. One of my fondest memories was also going to Cameroon during Christmas and Santa Claus was Black. And I was like, ‘Yo, what is happening?’ I was like, ‘Santa Claus is Black?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, Cameroon Santa Claus is Black. So that’s when I knew Santa Claus was bulls— …’ Just spending time with my family. Just the culture, the music, the smells, the trees, how big the trees are, and it’s just beautiful. The happiness in the people, it didn’t matter how much they had, it was just the happiness, the joy and the people, the safety in Cameroon. These were all things that I remember. I felt very safe.

When did you start visiting other African countries?

Cameroon was the one that I usually went to because that’s where my family was from, and that’s why BAL was so important because I started traveling on the continent a lot more. I have been to Senegal once. I have been to Morocco once. I went to Egypt as well with my dad. But the beauty of BAL is that we get to travel a lot, and I’m learning so much about the culture and the difference in the people throughout the continent. It’s just a really exciting project to be a part of.

When you dedicated that court in Cameroon, could you really tell how much it meant for the people that live there?

It was very special to inaugurate the court. There was already a court there that we had built 10 years ago. So, we had done a camp, I think in 2006, where I brought one of my college teammates, he actually played with me on the Bulls, Chris Richard. So, it was his first time in Africa. And I came with a couple of my friends from New York, it was their first time going to Africa. And we did a camp. And Amadou at the time was like, ‘I want to come.’ So, he came. We had a relationship through the game, and he ended up speaking to the kids and there wasn’t a lot of talent. It wasn’t about that. I was just very proud to do my first camp in Cameroon.

And I’ll never forget just the way that Amadou spoke to the kids. We all had tears in our eyes. It was just one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. Just kids from my village getting to hear the inspiration from probably the most important person in African basketball, to be honest. It was just so beautiful. It was just so honest and so grassroots. And my grandfather was sitting right there. I’ll never forget that moment. Yeah, I don’t even really remember the message. I just remember being just very overwhelmed by the way he was talking to the kids and the belief that they had to have in themselves. I knew that. I’m very interested to be a part of BAL. But when I knew that Amadou was at the helm, it made it that much easier for me because we have the most special, humble, leader, warrior leading the way.

For those unfamiliar, why should we care about the Basketball Africa League?

It’s the beginning of something very special. The reason why it’s so special is because we have to change the narrative of the way that people view African basketball. Right now, when you think of African basketball, you think of tall, long arms, raw, block shots, play defense, do all the dirty work. But the reason why that is because the kids get brought to America, they’re already 16, 17 years old. So, this league is giving kids a belief system where they’re like, ‘I don’t have to leave the continent. I don’t have to leave my roots. I don’t have to leave my family to be a part of a growing business, of a growing ecosystem, that’s just going to keep growing on every level.’

Now African kids don’t have to think about going to America. They can just look at beautiful stadiums, beautiful courts — very similar to the ones that are in the NBA — and have them in the motherland. And that that’s a very, very strong message, not just for people around the world, but also for Africans. Most of the time when you think of sports, a lot of parents say no to sports in African families and in African culture. So, this also allows them to believe that this is a business that’s not going anywhere and that’s just going to keep getting better and better. So that’s why I’m really proud to be a part of it.

Former NBA player Joakim Noah (left) and Basketball Africa League president Amadou Fall (center) look on at the BAL combine in Paris in January.

Basketball Africa League

Ten years from now, what kind of impact do you think the BAL is going to have on basketball in Africa?

I believe that the BAL in 10 years is going to look completely different. The talent is going to be way better. The ecosystem or everything that’s around, the entertainment around it, the business around it [will be better]. When I think of commercial real estate around these stadiums, there’s going to be so much business around it that it’s going to be a completely different league. At a talent level, but also the way that people view the league.

The most powerful part about the league is also people from America are going to be able to learn more about their African heritage. It’s not going to be somebody telling them. It’s one thing when somebody tells you. But it’s another thing just to feel it and to have your own experience. This league, it’s going to be a bridge for the diaspora, and it’s going to connect the dots that are hard to explain. And emotionally and in terms of identity, things are going to happen with this league that it’s going to make a bridge that is hard to put into words.

There wasn’t a team from Cameroon that qualified to play in the BAL this season, but what impact has the country made on the NBA?

This year, we did not qualify and that’s why that’s a tough one. Joel Embiid is from Cameroon. Pascal Siakam is from Cameroon. We have the other kid [Christian Koloko] from Toronto [Raptors], another big kid. We have a lot of basketball culture and history, and we have some of the top players in the world are from Cameroon. So, we just have to keep building the infrastructure, keep building it, keep building the grassroots because the reality is culturally, we’re something else.

What is the level of talent that you saw at the BAL combine in Paris in January?

It was great to have it in Paris and just seeing everybody working on making this better every year. We were able to start the BAL during COVID, so we couldn’t even have the fans. So now having the fans is definitely a plus. And the combine was great. It was like I get there, and I see Dwyane Wade’s son is there. And so, I’m sitting at the combine watching these kids practicing and there was just something about the energy of the combine. Usually, people are at combines and they’re just trying to get jobs. So, the energy, even though basketball is a team sport, is very individualized because everybody’s trying to get a job. But for some reason the energy that I got at the combine, it was just so united because people understood what it meant, subconsciously what it meant to represent the Africa league.

This is the NBA Africa league, the Basketball Africa League. It’s a big deal. So, people were very proud. And then Dwyane Wade walks in and I get to talk to him, and all these years of battles and competition, and just being able to talk to the young guys together, share this moment and seeing his son just shining at this combine and just to have an opportunity. It was just beautiful to see the father-son relationship and now them being a part of this journey. So, it’s beautiful to see. It is great to just be able to have real conversation other than competition and listening to how life is outside of basketball. We have traveled the world and now it’s taken us to Africa, and for me personally, you couldn’t write it any better.

How do you reflect on your 13-year NBA career and what made you say goodbye when you did in 2020?

Saying goodbye wasn’t too hard for me because it was just my body. My body just didn’t allow me to do it anymore. So, it was pretty clear to me that it was time and I’m very blessed to have a very loving family who was going to support me either way. So even though I loved the game, it was time to go. It was also a very strange time with COVID and not playing in front of fans. Playing in front of the crowd was something that was very special to me, and it kept me going.

So, for me, it was just time to go. But what’s a special thing was playing basketball at the highest level, at the NBA level and the family that it is. It’s a small select group of people who have an opportunity to play in a special league. I’m able to look at it not as a competitor now, but really understand how special it is sometimes when you’re competing for the championship, because you don’t have time to marinate on things like that.

How much pride do you have in being a Basketball Africa League investor and ambassador?

I’m very proud. I’m very proud in being an investor in NBA Africa. I feel like this is opening up doors that I didn’t know were possible while I was playing. And I think that the future is very, very bright because Africa is not only shining right now, but they are [one of the] the youngest growing youth populations in the world. So. if you look at the numbers themselves, this league is just going to get better and better. It’s just so obvious.

And I couldn’t be prouder because I am a child of the diaspora. I grew up and I was born in New York City, and I had the blessing to be able to go to Africa. I know what it did for me as a man growing up and having that part of my identity is a big part of who I am. A lot of kids, especially in America, they don’t have that same sense of belonging, that same sense of heritage, that same sense of identity. And I know what it did for me in my life. So, this league is going to be able to build on the diaspora piece, the heritage piece, the identity piece, and just as much as the basketball piece. So that’s what I’m really proud of and that’s why I’m proud to be an ambassador of this league. And that’s why I believe in it and I’m ready to put in the time.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.