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Is African Soccer the NBA's New Breeding Ground?

03/04/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

As a vast and geographically varied continent, Africa and its cultural practices have long provoked interest throughout the world. Africa is celebrated for its imagery of lush jungles, diverse tribes with unique customs, exotic wildlife, and archeological wonders such as the pyramids of Egypt, Timbuktu, and the Walls of Great Zimbabwe. Turbulence is also part of the mythology, with wars for independence through secessionist and separatist conflicts, famine and health crises. And then there are the visionaries who have fought for freedom, equality, and tradition, making a positive impact on history that will never be forgotten.

As individuals around the world have become increasingly familiar with the rich traditions of Africa, sports culture has also risen to play a pivotal part in the fascination of our continent. There is a saying that goes, "You'll know when an important soccer match is being played in Africa because the continent will literally come to a standstill." And it is true; everywhere you go, there are young boys kicking around a ball. As long as that ball can be kicked around, there will be a game.

"In Africa, every kid loves to play soccer, and I loved playing soccer. But my dad didn't want me playing soccer. He would joke, 'C'mon, man, you're too tall!'" - Serge Ibaka

As popular as soccer is in Africa, basketball is also fast-gaining in popularity. African-American superstar athletes such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Shaquille O'Neal were mythic gods to younger generations who watched them play on television.

"We played with balls made of socks, or put a towel over a balloon and wrapped duct tape around it. We used a tennis ball a lot, too. Only in big games did we actually use a soccer ball." - Luol Deng, current team member of NBA's Miami Heat, formerly of the Chicago Bulls

When Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010, there were doubts as to how organized or capable the continent was of executing such a large-scale sports event, given the constantly perpetuated image of the continent. There were predictions that the stadiums would not be ready on time, that visiting fans would be taking their lives into their hands, and even the Daily Star warned that there would be a "machete race war" on the streets. However, the World Cup was a great success that turned skeptics into supporters and helped change perceptions of African culture on a global scale, making room for expansion. Prior to that, when watching soccer, you would only see a handful of African players, but now a majority of European teams are filled with them.

"My background playing soccer gave me a natural advantage over many of the American-born players." - Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, NBA Player and Awards Honoree

The continent's first NBA Exhibition game will be held in Johannesburg, South Africa in August 2015, the first of its kind and a major step in bringing the NBA closer to Africans. This will make the basketball dream more realistic and attainable for kids growing up whose only interaction with the sport would have otherwise been through a TV screen.

During All Star Weekend, NBA Africa and the Corporate Council of Africa co-hosted a luncheon at the St Regis Hotel that was well attended by different members of NBA leadership and the Corporate Council, along with various international investors, entrepreneurs, and government officials. The luncheon focused on the growth of the sport on the continent as a unifying agent and a catalyst in changing the image of Africa around the world.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver attended, along with Africa's very own Masai Ujiri, the first African-born general manager for a North American major league sports team as well as for the Toronto Raptors; Amadou Gallo, Vice President for the NBA's development in Africa; Dikembe Mutombo; Hall of Fame finalist; and Hakeem Olajuwon, Hall of Fame inductee.

"We have to move the meter in sports in Africa, especially basketball. With the growth of the NBA globally, we have to figure out more ways to develop facilities, coaching, leagues, and youth development in Africa. The talent is incredible. Especially physically. How do we get the youth to start playing at an early age just like in soccer? The future is bright. We now have an NBA office in Africa, we have legends and Hall of Famers, we have African assistant coaches, front office members, and some prominent African players over the last 10 years. So we must plan well for the next 10." - Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

If legends such as Hakeem Olajuwon can become one of the world's best NBA Players, and Luol Deng an all-star, then imagine the potential that would exist if basketball was just as much a part of African culture as soccer is.

Sports support the survival of communities and are important for their role in building leadership skills and a sense of identity, promoting unity and peaceful, healthy societies by giving the youth something productive to do with their time. The initial efforts have been encouraging, but more work is needed. Its massive success in China has proven that the NBA can expand into foreign markets. The hope is that with more resources being put into developing facilities and the sport in schools and youth centers, we can create a long list of prominent African players to dominate the NBA in years to come.