With a new office opening in Lagos (Nigeria) in February, the NBA has finally established a presence in Africa's largest country. Gbemisola Abdu, NBA Africa Vice President and Country Lead, is determined to expand it.
There have been many high-profile Nigerian-origin NBA players throughout the years. This includes international Greeks. Giannis Antetokounmpo [his original Nigerian surname was Adetokunbo]Abudu, NBA Africa and NBA Europe are keen to grow the talent pool from the grassroots.
ESPN spoke to the University of Wyoming alumnus at the Basketball Africa League's Nile Conference held in Cairo in April about the NBA’s plan for the region and her own goals for youth development and filling the “blank slate” that is Nigeria with basketball courts.
READ: Everything you need to know about the BAL 2022
ESPN: What other projects, besides the BAL? [in the Nigeria office of the NBA]? What is your overall goal?
Gbemisola Abudu: This is one of my favorite questions. It's an open-ended question, which is the best thing about it. I would like to break down NBA Nigeria's mandate into three pillars. One is the creation of a strong talent pipeline, which means that it can be used from childhood up to the elite levels.
How can we get children to play basketball from a young age? [We're]Basketball is now more accessible to them. They will benefit from the life skills they learn through basketball, no matter how high they go. Because it impacts infrastructure development in Nigeria, I believe that this is an exciting prospect.
It's actually this basketball ecosystem. How can we create a stronger basketball ecosystem? Given the importance of the NBA, and our ability to influence it in Nigeria, we need to ensure that NBA and BAL are available across the country. It isn't a matter of only certain individuals being able to access basketball games.
[The question is:]How do we make sure that Nigerians go to pubs to see a football match? [and]It's easy to watch a NBA game. It's about making sure everyone in Nigeria has free access to NBA games. It's about bringing the NBA into Nigeria.
The beauty of the NBA platform is the perfect intersection for all things cultural: music, fashion, and art. Nigeria is now a major exporter of African culture. How can we combine all this for the NBA brand of Nigeria?
There are more than 200 million people in the United States. How can you make it easier for a greater number of people to have an affinity for basketball and the NBA specifically? There are so many exciting things in the works. I am really, really excited.
Gbemisola Abudu, NBA Africa Vice President and Nigeria Head, discusses her vision of developing basketball in Africa's powerhouse nation.
ESPN: Football is Africa's most popular sport. It is easy to play. It takes only a ball and some space. Is it part of your job to give access to courts and hoops in areas that aren't possible to find in a fancy arena? Not just an indoor court but also an outdoor court.
Abudu: Absolutely. Existing programmes are available. We also have programs we want to roll out over the next few months. We aim to build 1000 courts over the next ten years.
The private sector in Nigeria is looking to partner with us, and to find new, exciting ways of making the game more accessible. It's important that infrastructure is maintained. We're exploring creative options, including building new courts or renovating existing ones, and we're open to considering different partnerships to ensure that this happens.
We continue to support Nigeria by donating a legacy court at the NBA Crossover. A legacy court was donated to the Ikorodu neighborhood in Lagos. We're basically giving the community of Ikorodu a basketball court.
It's more than just providing a court. This is like asking, “What kind of programs can we offer the community?” [on]so that children can play basketball.
ESPN: Are there any high-profile players from Nigerian basketball that you are looking to partner with to make these programmes more visible?
Abudu: I must say that I give so much credit to NBA players of Nigerian descent. Many of them reached me to say, “You know? We are glad that the NBA is in Nigeria. We want to do more in Nigeria. We want to go home. We want to work together.
This goes beyond just one or two people. It doesn't matter if it's former players reaching out or current players, it's exciting.
Nigerians are proud of their country. Many of these players desire to return home. They want to do some thing. They are eager to find out how they can get plugged in to the NBA's Nigeria plan. There are summer camps available in Nigeria. They are working with us to find out how the NBA could help them. This is where I give them credit.
It's not just about us trying reach out and convince them. They'reThey said they wanted to shed light on the NBA's activities.
They have built a reputation in the market. They are beloved by all, no matter if it is Jordan. [Nwora], Precious [Achiuwa]Giannis or?
What [Giannis]He did at the NBA All-Star Game was major signalling. He had the hoodie with the Nigerian zip code +234 printed on it. It is a national pride. I am so happy that the NBA is now in Nigeria. [there].
ESPN: Are you also a part of the WNBA? They are often mistakenly referred to as the same company.
Abudu: I think they are. Not just NBA players, but WNBA athletes of Nigerian descent as well. Many have reached out. I was able to meet some of these people. They are all the same. They want to be involved in it. Usually, I'd say 99%. When I refer to NBA, I mean WNBA [too, because it]gehört to the entire family.
ESPN: Are you feeling pressure to succeed in this venture. It is clear that the fan base is there, so all of the hard work has been done.
Abudu: I haven't yet, but it's possible I will feel it. I've heard Amadou [Gallo Fall]Masai [Ujiri]We have spoken over the years about how it would feel if we had [The BAL]It's happening in Africa, and it's happening now. It's an incredible opportunity to create a legacy for a sport that I love dearly and a company I care about in Nigeria.
It's a fact that I love challenges. My backgroundBuilding companies from the ground up has been a hallmark of his work. The difference between building something from scratch and building it from the ground up is [that in this case]You have already developed an affinity with your brand. How can you capitalize on that?
Football is a cheap sport. However, significant investments have been made over time. Although we haven’t achieved that yet, we are making progress.
Since 2010, the NBA has been present on the continent. We're making that investment whether it's the BAL right now, the junior NBA programmes to grassroots, or all of the football-related things we have done up until now.
It can't fail, according to me. This is how I see it mentally. If you make the right investments and partner with the right people then the passion for the game and affinity for the brand will already exist. All of this is possible when you combine it all. It will succeed.
You have the internal drive to make this happen. This can be described as: I am the face and 1000 people have been pushing for it to happen. And now it is. It's time to get on with it and build upon what others have accomplished. It is impossible to fail, I believe. It's not an experiment. It is already a tried and true concept.
ESPN: It would be a great goal to get one of these BAL leg in Nigeria. [the original BAL structure, before COVID-19, was to have the tournament travel around the continent, but this year the tournament is being played in three locations].
Abudu: Yes. You can be sure that consumers will tell what to do if you have a product. There is a lot of demand. The market will reveal exactly what it is, I believe. [the format]Should be for the long-term. This is my opinion based upon the realities of the environment and the infrastructure.
As I get older, I am convinced that any entity like the NBA has a domino impact. So I want the BAL in my country. I believe the market will ultimately tell us where to go.
Elliot Steinbaum is a communications officer for the NBA Do you allow me to add a comment? With the support of two prominent Nigerian investors, we created NBA Africa last year. It is important to get them involved, and it speaks to the potential in Nigeria.
Abudu: Oh, tremendously. The more people you know who are well-respected in the market where you plan to start a business, then the better. You can not only leverage their market credibility, but you can also leverage their resources and their connections. This allows us to be better placed in Nigeria.
From a credibility standpoint, because some people like the NBA. But one reason why the opportunity for growth is enormous is that there are 200 million people. How many people are avid NBA and basketball fans right now?
My goal is to have half of the population support us. If the average child grows up and declares, “I want to play at the BAL,” then that is a sign you have done something right.
The BAL Playoffs, Finals, and Semifinals will be held in Kigali, Rwanda, from May 21 to 28, and will be broadcast on ESPN Africa and ESPN+ in the USA.