Basketball’s future lies in upper and lower-middle class growth

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Basketball League Africa (BAL) just ended its conference games in Dakar, Senegal, and Cairo, Egypt. The top four teams from each conference now head to the BAL playoffs at Kigali Arena (which held the inaugural tournament last year) from May 21 to 28.

It’s time for another round of East Africans whining because, like the Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) in February, the East African Community snagged only one slot in the Kigali playoffs via Rwanda Energy Group (REG). Cobra Sports from South Sudan and BC Espoir Fukash from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, both making their first appearances, did squeak through.

At the Afcon, Eastern Africa escaped a total eclipse through the qualification of Ethiopia and Comoros, out in the Indian Ocean, but they didn’t make it to the final.

The region, though, continues its seemingly never-ending rise as a long-distance athletics global power, with Kenya in particular having emerged from the Covid pandemic with a lot of hunger, and not ashamed to win first, second and third place at world marathons anymore.

There were also big breakthroughs in road cycling, with Rwandan rider Moise Mugisha making history at this year’s Tour du Rwanda by winning Stage 8, the first time a Rwandan won a stage since 2018.

Across the mountains, a distant cousin, Biniam Girmay, in late March won the Ghent-Wevelgem in Belgium, also making history as the first rider from the country, and also the first African, to win an elite one-day classic.


In late January, tennis prodigy Angella Okutoyi, 17, entered the record books at the Australian Open by being the first Kenyan woman to win a match at a junior grand slam tournament.

Although BAL, in just its second season, has already become deathly cutthroat, with DRC as a new member, and some of Africa’s leading economies, albeit battered by the pandemic and now the global blowback from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one would have expected At least two EAC teams in the playoffs.

And, despite their gusto, REC doesn’t go into the playoffs as favorites.

This failure to establish early dominance in BAL is puzzling. There was a time, years back, when the University of Nairobi basketball team struck fear in the hearts of those who faced it.

East Africans are well-fed, and the South Sudanese are so tall – a great advantage in basketball – their heads touch the clouds. Together with Rwandans, some of the people of the two countries have been judged to be the tallest Africans by the folks who measure those kinds of things.

One source of the problem could be that the juice that feeds modern basketball – and it seems football – excellence does not run deep in East Africa.

The new boom in basketball in Africa, if one studies the backgrounds of the star basketball players, seems to be fed by the rise of the upper and lower-middle working classes in Africa.

East Africa has seen relatively decent growth in its middle class, but less so in upper and lower-middle working classes.

Strange as it might seem, then, a great East African basketball future lies not with the ministries of Sports, but the ministries of Planning and Finance.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]


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