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Obama’s growing bond with basketball shows global reach

The former U.S. president will be involved in the Basketball Africa League

TORONTO — As Drake was showered with loud applause when he was introduced early in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Scotiabank Arena celebrity sighting segment of the night appeared to be over. But the public address announcer saved the best for last when he introduced Barack Obama to the crowd. The 44th president of the United States received a standing ovation accompanied by “MVP” chants usually reserved in this building for Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard.

More than two years after his presidency ended, Obama continues to be greeted with genuine love, even across the border. For Obama, who walked into the building sporting a stylish black leather jacket, it was the first NBA Finals he’s attended since watching the Chicago Bulls against the Seattle SuperSonics at the United Center in 1996. And it’s probably safe to say his vantage point as a Chicago law firm associate was probably not as good as the midcourt view he shared sitting next to NBA commissioner Adam Silver about 20 rows up from the court.

For Obama, this was more than simply dropping in on a game. It’s also a sign of a closer bond with the sport. Earlier this year, it was announced he will have a role with the Basketball Africa League that will launch with 12 teams across the continent next year.

“It’s awesome,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who was born in Cameroon, when asked about Obama’s presence and involvement with the league. “I’ll do my best to help with it because guys like Luc Mbah a Moute [a 10-year NBA veteran who was also born in Cameroon] helped me out in terms of bringing awareness to the game. To present kids in Africa the opportunity to know about the game is great.”

Seated behind Obama during the game was Amadou Gallo Fall, who was named the president of the Basketball Africa League last week after serving as a vice president of NBA Africa. While Fall didn’t want to discuss Obama’s still-to-be-determined role with the new league, whose 12 teams will be announced after a qualifying tournament later this year, he shared his feelings about a game that is increasing in stature across the continent.

“We’re going to need all the support we can get in getting this started, and we’re excited,” said Fall, who was born in Senegal and played basketball at the University of the District of Columbia. “With the number of international players in this Finals, including four from Africa, the NBA continues to be global, and we’re proud players from there have a presence both on and off the court, including [Raptors president Masai Ujiri] in a leadership role. When I leave here, I’m going home to continue to build what we know will be a successful league.”

Silver, who arrived at the game with Obama, understands the importance of global popularity of the NBA: Game 1 broke NBA ratings records across Canada as support of the Raptors has increased across the entire country. Four players in the Finals are either from Africa (Siakam and Serge Ibaka of the Raptors) or had parents who were born there (OG Anunoby of the Raptors and Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors).

“I think it’s one of the places we’re looking in the world where we see enormous opportunity,” Silver said of the NBA’s connection to Africa. “We see enormous opportunity.”

Silver said he’s seen the reach of the game grow via digital media throughout a continent with more than a billion people.

“There are something like 700 million cellphones, 400 million of which are smartphones, so it’s been revolutionary in terms of the people of Africa’s ability to watch our games in real time on handheld devices,” Silver said. “So we see enormous growth opportunities both in terms of players and for participation, and ultimately an interest for the league.”

The involvement of Obama, whose father was from Kenya, makes sense. While the level of his work with the Basketball Africa League remains to be seen, it’s clear, based on the love he received in Toronto on Sunday and in other appearances he’s made, that his participation will provide a tremendous boost.

“It’s special that he’s helping,” Siakam said. “There’s a lot of talent [in Africa], and everyone’s looking forward to seeing how this works out.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.