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2021 NBA Playoffs

The NBA Finals features a strong African coalition

Seven players of African origin, including Giannis Antetokounmpo and Deandre Ayton, are active for the series

Star big men Giannis Antetokounmpo and Deandre Ayton highlight a large number of players of African origin playing in this season’s NBA Finals between the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns.

The Finals, which continue Thursday with Game 2 (ABC, 9 p.m. ET), feature seven players who were either born in Africa or have at least one parent who was born on the continent.

That list includes the Bucks’ Antetokounmpo (Nigeria), Thanasis Antetokounmpo (Nigeria), Jordan Nwora (Nigeria), Mamadi Diakite (Guinea) and Axel Toupane (Senegal), and the Suns’ Ayton (Nigeria) and Abdel Nader (Egypt). Depending on how the series plays out (the Suns currently lead 1-0), a Suns or Bucks player could join Hakeem Olajuwon (1994, 1995) and Andre Iguodala (2015) – both Nigerian – as the only players of African origin to win the Finals MVP award.

The presence of so many players from Africa in the Finals is the result of the league’s nearly 20-year presence on the continent, from basketball camps to full-on academic institutions, and its continued efforts to bring more prominence and interest to the game of basketball to people across the globe.

“For the NBA, it speaks to the growing internationalization/globalization of our league and specifically speaks to the growth of the game in Africa and with Africans,” NBA Africa CEO Victor Williams told The Undefeated.

Williams, a former banking executive, added that having so many players of African origin on such a prominent stage gives fans a rooting interest for teams located some 7,000 miles away, and allows them to identify more closely with the players.

Stars such as Antetokounmpo and Ayton, who were born in Greece and the Bahamas, respectively, and have parents who were born in Nigeria, will engender pride and interest from fans in Africa because they provide a blueprint to success for those still on the continent.

Ayton, whose mother is Jamaican and Bahamian and whose father is Nigerian, doesn’t know much about his father’s side of the family, but Ayton hopes he and his son, who was born in March, can learn more about his Nigerian heritage one day.

“I don’t really know much on that side, but I know … there’s a lot of people there,” Ayton said of Nigeria. “And I just want to be grateful and honored by my parents for putting me in this world to be in a position I’m in to represent everybody.”

The NBA’s work on the continent began in 2003 when it held its first Basketball Without Borders (BWB) camp in Johannesburg. (Ten former BWB participants have been drafted since that time.) Seven years later, the NBA opened its first offices in Africa, also in Johannesburg. The expansion was extended further in 2018 when the league opened the NBA Academy Africa, a joint training-educational facility, in Saly, Senegal. The league also runs 15 Jr. NBA programs on the continent, including in Angola, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Ivory Coast and Tanzania. And in May, the NBA announced the formation of NBA Africa, a new business entity within the league that will, among other things, handle sponsorships and media deals on the continent, and manage the Basketball Africa League (BAL), which concluded its inaugural season in May.

This is all in an effort to train and educate young African children, offer professional-level skill training to elite basketball players, and make the NBA and the game of basketball more visible (NBA games can be seen in all 54 African nations, whether through free-to-air, digital or paid television) and profitable in Africa.

“The formation of NBA Africa is part of the NBA’s growth plan over the next 10 years for our activities in Africa, both basketball and commercial, because we want to make basketball one of the top sports on the continent,” Williams said.

All that effort is now paying dividends: In November, a record nine players of Nigerian origin were selected during the 2020 NBA draft, a record nine players of Nigerian origin squared off in a playoff series (Miami Heat vs. Bucks) in May, and last month former NBA player Ime Udoka (Nigeria) became the first person of African origin to be named a head coach of an NBA team after being hired by the Boston Celtics.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has never been to his parents’ home country, first visited the continent in 2015 as a part of the NBA Africa Game. Over the year’s he’s noticed how many more players from Africa he’s seen when playing against the other 29 teams in the league.

“It speaks for itself how much talent comes from Africa,” Antetokounmpo said. “I had the opportunity to go there six years ago with my family to see for myself, and I was able to coach those young kids –  those young kids were my age – and they had so much talent.

“Hopefully, moving forward we can see more kids from Africa join the NBA.”

There have been more than 100 players of African origin who have played in the NBA over the years, both before and after the BWB camp in 2003. They represent multiple countries across the continent, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Dikembe Mutombo), the Republic of Congo (Serge Ibaka), Cameroon (Joel Embiid, Pascal Siakam), Nigeria (Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo), South Sudan (Luol Deng, Bol Bol), and Senegal (Tacko Fall).

Nigeria in particular will be a big part of the NBA’s continued expansion. It’s the most populous country on the continent, has the largest consumer market and economy, features one of the more engaged fan bases, and is the ancestral home of half of the players of African origin in the league. Not to mention it is the home of the most illustrious athlete in the country’s history.

“The NBA game is very, very popular there,” Williams said of Nigeria. “A lot of people trace that fandom to when Hakeem [Olajuwon] was drafted and became a star in the NBA” in 1984.

There are major plans for the Nigeria expansion: a second NBA Africa office within the next year, a second NBA Academy Africa and live BAL games. (Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the first BAL season was held in Kigali, Rwanda.) The NBA also hopes to expand its Power Forward youth development and training initiative, a partnership with ExxonMobil, to other cities in Nigeria; Power Forward has been used in 30 schools in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, since 2013.

All that growth will be aided by more players of African origin not only playing in the Finals, but making it to the NBA entirely.

“It’s going to raise our profile, it’s going to excite our fans, it’s going to inspire our youth, and we’ll hopefully generate greater interest, both on the continent as well as more broadly in the game of basketball in Africa,” Williams said.

“We think that the more we see this representation of Africa in the NBA, it’s going to lift the entire basketball ecosystem.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"