Basketball Big Deal In Rwanda.

File photo public domain. Basketball in Africa is generally played on outdoor courts.
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Whenever Rwanda is in the news, it is nearly always in connection with the plans of the UK government to send unwanted illegal immigrants and refugees to the African country, but rarely is there any reporting about what they might find in Rwanda.

The week national public radio in the US reported on how basketball is taking off as a sport to rival soccer in popularity on outdoor courts in parks and youth centers where parents and supporters watch from rows of bleachers.

Basketball is booming in Rwanda today — and it’s easy to see the popularity. All over the country, there are people wearing jerseys of NBA superstars with names like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

Club Rafiki has been in operation for 50 years. In 2022, Rwandan President Paul Kagame even showed up to unveil the club’s recent renovations.

Coaches work with players of varying ages, boys and girls. From the littlest children come shrieks of joy. From older players, focused stares, determination, precise shots at the basket.

Bizimana Bassam, one of the coaches, says that players show up as early as 7 a.m. on weekends, and that during school vacations, Club Rafiki can host as many as 500 young players.

Bassam played basketball as a child, but began coaching as an adult. He says a lot has changed since then. And some of the kids who he now coaches have aspirations of going pro.

“They want to play our whole world. It’s a dream for them,” he says.

Not far from where Bassam stands, a banner with big, block letters reads: “Club Rafiki Dreams Big.”

Nineteen-year-old Liliane Uwase has been playing basketball for three years, inspired by her brother who also plays. And in the game, she says she sees opportunity.

“If I study well, and I get some scholarship outside the country, I [can] go outside [the country] to show my talent … I will be a good player and I would be a good doctor,” she says.

Basketball has been played internationally in Africa since the 1960s. But the NBA launched the Basketball Africa League [BAL] in 2021. It’s the first time the NBA has been involved in operating a league outside of North America. Now, it’s in its fourth season.

It’s part of an effort by the NBA to broaden its fanbase globally. The hope is that here, basketball could one day rival soccer’s status on the continent.

This season includes 12 teams from 12 African countries, with games played in South Africa, Egypt, Senegal and Rwanda. The Armée Patriotique Rwandaise basketball team, known as APR, will represent Rwanda for the first time.

“There’s a whole lot of excitement around APR because it’s been about 14 years since we won a local championship,” says Lt. David Nsengiyumva, APR’s assistant manager. “And that really hyped up everybody. And now that we get to represent the country in the BAL, it’s a huge honor for us.”

Nsengiyumva says that with BAL’s recent entry into Africa, it means that some young players now see opportunities for themselves in Africa, rather than feeling a push to leave the continent.

“Kids wanted to go to the U.S. to play basketball, but now because of the BAL, they can play in the local league, go to the BAL and play high-level basketball while being in the country,” he says.

At Club Rafiki, that’s what 16-year-old Yassin Nshimiyimana is hoping for. Dressed in a red sleeveless shirt and shorts, he’s focused as he runs drills on the court with the other players.

He’s been playing basketball for three years, and one of the coaches identifies him as a standout.

“I want to be famous, to be known like ‘Yassin is a great player we have in Rwanda,'” he says. “I get the money cause you can’t play without getting money while you’re famous.”

And while he thinks he could one day play for the Rwandan national team, his style of play is influenced by NBA players, so much so that he was given a nickname: American.

“They call me American because [of] some crossover that I do … smooth layups, so they say I play American basketball,” he says.

Nshimiyimana thinks that one day basketball could rival soccer in Rwanda, as more people turn their attention to the BAL and the BK Arena, which has played host to the league’s championships. And he thinks his country can also turn out home grown talent.

“Basketball for me, it’s like I take it like a career job. I see people in Rwanda who play basketball, they reach far,” he says. And I think to be playing basketball, I’ll be famous and my life will be good playing basketball.”

The Basketball Africa League (BAL) is also working with world governing body Fiba to nurture female talent and grow the sport on the continent.

The BAL is in its fourth year as a men’s tournament, with the 2024 champions set to be decided on 1 June after play-offs involving eight teams in Kigali, Rwanda.

BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall says work “is already being done” by his organisation to boost the women’s game.

“There is a women’s club championship that Fiba is running and we built the BAL on the foundation of club basketball that Fiba used to run,” he told BBC Sport Africa.

“We contribute towards investment in growing the women’s game.

“The foundation is laid.”

A key challenge for Gallo Fall is to expand the female talent pool across the continent.

“We need to continue to support women’s participation in the sport and the development at grassroots level working with Fiba,” the Senegalese added.

Sources: NPR, BBC.
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