DAKAR (Reuters) - The National Basketball Association opened its first training academy in Africa on Thursday in a push to expand its presence on the continent and prepare more African players to enter the league, its vice-president for Africa said.
The academy is based in the seaside West African nation of Senegal, where a sports development program in partnership with the NBA has already produced professional players including Minnesota Timberwolves centre-forward Gorgui Dieng.
“The goal of the NBA Academy Africa is to create a more direct path for young people who have talent so that their future is not determined by chance,” Amadou Gallo Fall told reporters in Senegal’s capital Dakar.
The academy is part of a push to expand recruitment worldwide and follows three academies which were launched in China last year. Two more are slated to open in India and Australia.
The number of international players in the NBA has been increasing, with a record 113 on opening night rosters for the 2016-17 season. But most are European, with only 14 from Africa.
Basketball has long been eclipsed by soccer on the continent, where even former superstars such as Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon did not learn to play until their late teens.
“If you could find a kid from Africa that can shoot the ball, that’s kind of special. Why? Because he doesn’t have the resources,” said the academy’s technical director Roland Houston, as 20 lanky teenagers practiced at a training camp in the Senegalese city of Thies earlier this week.
The NBA academy will build on the Sports for Education and Economic Development (SEED) Project, which has trained young players in Senegal since it was founded in 2002.
Twelve players will be selected to join the inaugural class. All will receive scholarships to the academy, which will also provide academic courses and mentoring.
“I see basketball as something that ... has already taken me places. Basketball has made me meet people I never expected to meet, people I never wished I could even shake hands with,” said Timothy Ighoeffe, 17, one of the hopefuls from Nigeria.
The NBA is also counting on the move to help it reach new audiences in Africa, where it has slowly been building its brand. It held its first African exhibition game in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2015 and signed a major trans-African broadcast deal last year.
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Joe Bavier