‘We think that this continent has tremendous potential’ — Andscape

DAKAR, Senegal – The booming, rhythmic drumbeat, proud men dressed as lions, tireless dancers moving in step and singing and more engulfed the opener of the 2022 Basketball Africa League all over Dakar Arena long before the tipoff and after the final buzzer of the game on Saturday night.

The emotion of the night nearly brought NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum to tears. Afterward, it led him to dance to the music alongside former NBA great Dikembe Mutombo and Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

“This atmosphere was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” Tatum told Andscape after Seydou Legacy Athletique Club defeated Dakar Universite Club. “The energy in the building from beginning to end and in the postgame was just nonstop. It’s just so great to see. This is our first season with fans in the building. It is clear to me that these fans love the BAL, love basketball and it just warms my heart. It was fantastic to see.”

In the following Q&A, Tatum talked to Andscape about the 2022 BAL season, the growth of the league in Africa and hopes for the future, having its first female head coach in AS Salé’s Liz Mills, the growth of Black head coaches and executives in the NBA over the last six years, Africa’s impact on the NBA today and much more.

Mark Tatum believes the long-term impact of the BAL will be showing African kids they can play high-level basketball without leaving the continent. “That’s a powerful thing for us to be able to demonstrate,” Tatum said.

Mike Stobe/Getty Images

For those new to the Basketball Africa League, how would you explain why the NBA has a league in Africa with 12 teams across the continent?

Well, we’ve been in Africa. It started back in 1971 when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came over here and did some [basketball] clinics. And then, of course, when [former NBA commissioner] David Stern came over in the early ’90s and met with Nelson Mandela. And [former NBA star] Dikembe Mutombo, who’s on this trip, was here, and Nelson Mandela at that time said that sports have the power to change the world and the power to bring people together. So we’ve been here for a long time. We’ve been expanding on the continent. We think that this continent has tremendous potential. It is the youngest continent in the world. It’s one of the fastest-growing continents in the world, with countries with the fastest growing economies in the world. And so there’s a huge opportunity here to really take sports and use it as an economic driver and economic growth engine for the continent. So that’s why we’re here.

When did the NBA first start talking about the Basketball Africa League?

So we had been here on the continent for a long time. We had been doing largely grassroots programs, grassroots activities. But I’d say about five years ago, five, six years ago, me, [NBA commissioner] Adam [Silver], [Toronto Raptors chairman and president] Masai [Ujiri], [BAL president] Amadou [Fall], we started talking about it and saying, ‘We need to do something more here.’ The grassroot stuff is great. It’s important. We’re going to continue doing that. We’re going to continue to expand that. But we said, ‘We think now is the right time for Africa to have its own league.’

And so we started brainstorming and saying, ‘How do we do that?’ We needed a way and this all started around the actual [NBA Africa] games that we started bringing and we saw the interest of bringing African players, current and former, to come play here along with other American and international players. And those were the formats of our first games. And we said, ‘There’s something here, right? There’s a hunger for, a demand for, our game here. And so how do we start thinking about what that would look like?’ And so that’s when those conversations started forming, I’d say probably about five or six years ago.

What do you think the long-term impact of this league will be?

The long-term impact is going to be incredible. We already see the talent of African players in the NBA today. Fourteen on opening night rosters that were born on the continent. Another 36 or so who had a parent that was born on the continent. So a total of 50 players in our league today with direct roots to the continent and that’s with very little infrastructure, right? And so I think the infrastructure that we’re building here, the academies, the junior NBA programs … eventually we will get more into women’s basketball here, too, at the elite levels. But for young boys and girls to be able to say, ‘You know what? I can play professional basketball at a high level without ever having to leave the continent.’ That’s a powerful thing for us to be able to demonstrate.

I think you’ll see more investment and more kids and having it be more of a path of basketball, to say, ‘This is a great opportunity for me. I don’t have to think about going to Europe. I don’t have to think about going to the U.S. to play professional basketball. I can do it here in my own country, in my own continent.’

Did the NBA have to explain to Europe, to Latin America, to Asia, why they started a league in Africa first? Did the NBA get any pushback about it?

I don’t think so. I think, you know, we’re making investments in a lot of different places. Africa is unique. Africa is special in that we create our own entity around it, but the case is compelling. And I don’t think when you hear the case as to why we’re doing it, there’s no disputing that it makes a lot of sense.

Why is it important for you to be here right now?

My dad is Black. My dad grew up in Jamaica, but he has African roots as well, and so, for me, I’ve always felt comfortable coming back to the continent. I see the power that basketball and sports can have on these young folks. I think about Joel Embiid. I think about Pascal Siakam, who participated in Basketball without Borders. And now look at those guys, you know, Sixth Man of the Year, MVP candidate, who are having an impact much broader than I think they even thought they would’ve had when they participated in that camp here at Basketball Without Borders.

And they continue to give back here on the continent, too. And so I see the power of that. The power of our sport. The power of the NBA to contribute in so many meaningful and good ways. And for me personally, that’s something I’m very, very interested in and something I get a lot of pleasure and joy seeing and being able to contribute to.

You have a new female head coach in the BAL, Liz Mills with Morocco AS Salé. She is the highest-ranking female coach under the NBA umbrella right now. What did that news mean to the NBA?

We’ve pushed for gender equality, even on the NBA side. We’ve been focused on that with WNBA. We’ve been supporters of the WNBA for over 25 years and so, for us, this is a game that is played by boys and girls equally around the world. There’s no reason why a female can’t run a men’s team and coach a men’s team. And we’re seeing that here. We were the first on the continent to actually have a female referee a game last year and so it’s a big part of what we’re doing here in the continent.

A big part of our social responsibility efforts here on the continent are about gender equality and eliminating gender violence, which continues to be a major, major issue [not just] here in Africa but around the world, too. Actually, we think we can make a difference and we know we can make a difference there. We actually had these players [March 3] participate in a gender violence training program that was sponsored by the Attorney General Alliance from the United States.

And this was an opportunity to educate these young kids on how to treat women respectfully, how to look them in the eyes and the impact that their actions can have. And if we can change and influence one of these young kids’ minds, think about the butterfly effect, how many other people they can affect. And so can we.

Can you explain the role of such BAL investors as former United States President Barack Obama and actor Forest Whitaker? What exactly are their roles as investors and why are they a part of it?

So our investors are part of it because they see the same opportunity that we do. They see the same impact that we think we can have, they see that as well and they buy into it. They want be a part of that and so we’re working with different investors in different areas. So our investor is from Nigeria, Tunde Folawiyo, and we’re talking to him about arena development. He was very instrumental in us opening up our first office in Nigeria, in Lagos, and he’s really making some observations and connections for us to say here’s how you approach Nigeria to take advantage of the largest country on the continent in terms of population. So he’s providing advice like that.

President Obama has been incredible in terms of providing his insight into the impact that we can have, and we continue talking to him about ways where he can actually continue to be helpful with us directly through his foundation as well. Forest Whitaker, what a champ. I mean, he has had an NGO [nongovernmental organization] that has participated in activities on the continent for over 10 years and he wants to now bring basketball to his NGO program because he sees the power of sport to be able to bring people together and facilitate the conversations and really create peace out of warlike situations.

So each investor has its own reason but they all see the impact and the potential impact that we could have on making the continent an even greater place than it is today.

Back in 2016, you expressed optimism when you sat down with us to talk about the lack of Black head coaches and in the front office. Today, 14 of the NBA’s head coaches are Black, one is Asian and one is Hispanic. The NBA also currently has three Black presidents of basketball operations in Ujiri, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Koby Altman and the Dallas Mavericks’ Nico Harrison.

In 2016, we were all concerned, we were all frustrated, and we all decided that we needed to do something about it. And the reason I had hope is because I know the people in this league, I’ve worked with the people in this league a long time. I’ve been here for 23 years. At that point, I’d been here for 16, 17 years. And I knew that people would get it, and I knew that we would make it a priority for us as a league. And when we put our weight behind something, and when we just share the data, share the information with our teams, I would say for the most part they get it. They understand.

And why I’ve been so optimistic about it is that the teams have responded positively. We’ve done some things systemically that we said we’re going to do during that time, because it’s not necessarily rocket science. But you have to put in work and you have to make it a priority. And everyone within the organization, not just the league but in teams, has to know it’s a priority. And not because it’s some check-the-box exercise, but because it’s the right thing to do and it makes us better.

And I think when you go back to the history of this league, it has always stood for these principles of equality, of diversity, of inclusion, right? And I think our teams get that as well. And there was some inherent biases in the process like there is in every process. And so, it’s about education, it’s about training, being able to recognize when those biases seep into play and being able to break that cycle.

And so there’s, again, a whole systemic way that we approached it. And we still have work to do, don’t get me wrong. We have work to do. But I continue to be optimistic and hopeful about the direction that we’re going in, and the fact that I don’t need to convince, and we don’t need to convince, anybody in our teams or in the league that being aboard a diverse and inclusive organization is a good thing for our organization. That’s the key. If you don’t believe that, then it’s harder to put in the work and the time and the energy to break those biases sometimes. But I have faith that, for the most part, everyone in our league understands it and believes it.

Why do you think last summer suddenly seven out of eight head coach hires were filled by Black men?

There’s only 30 head coach jobs. There’s only 30 GM [general manager], heads of basketball operation jobs. I think those jobs don’t come up that often. And sometimes this stuff takes a little bit of time to get an inclusive process, identifying diverse candidates. Five of those coaches were first-time head coaches. So that says to me that something is working, because you’re not going to back to the same old well again. …

Over time, sometimes the numbers may go up, sometimes the numbers may go a little bit down. But I think creating a process to ensure that the most diverse candidates are getting those opportunities will create more opportunities for people of color, and for women. One of the things I was really, really happy to see, too, is a couple of women getting opportunities to interview for head coaches’ jobs. That didn’t happen before. Now, it’s a normal thing to consider a woman head coach. We have a woman’s head coach here with the Moroccan men’s team in the BAL. And pretty soon, people aren’t going to question that. It’s going to be common nature, and it’s going to be part of the process to include the best possible candidates for the job.

In 2016, you said the NBA was going to create a database to inform teams about qualified candidates of color for jobs. Was that effective?

We have a database of potential up-and-coming assistant coaches, coaches from the G League, coaches from the BAL, coaches from a global database that we can share with our teams. And we share with our teams on a regular basis, so when they get an opportunity, they can say: ‘Oh, I never thought about that guy. Look at his resume, look at her resume, look at her track record, what she’s done. We need to talk to this person.’

So it starts with that. It’s breaking that bubble, if you will, and saying, ‘Here’s a whole group of people that you should consider.’ And then, it’s about training and providing resources for those coaches, for those general managers and people in the basketball world to be prepared for those interviews, right? Bring them into the tent and say, ‘Here’s what to expect. Here’s how you should approach that interview.’

And so, look, a lot of us don’t have that opportunity to get that mentorship to say here’s how you should approach this, so we’re providing that for this group of potential coaches. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do. That gives them the best chance of being in the right place at the right time for those to happen.

Do Becky Hammon and Liz Mills give you optimism that we’ll see a woman as an NBA head coach in the coming years?

One hundred percent. There is no reason why a woman can’t be a head coach of men’s team, of an NBA team, right? We got [a female coach] right here in the BAL, we’re demonstrating it with a woman head coach of the Moroccan men’s team, OK? And I think she’s going to do very, very well here.

I think people like Liz are going to break that perception that many had, and that’s the key to the opportunity that we had. And that’s the thing about giving, that representation matters, that opportunity matters, because you can’t bid if you can’t see it.

What are your thoughts on a former NBA player and assistant coach in Robert Pack getting his first head coaching opportunity with BAL Rwanda REG?

I saw him on this trip. Wished him luck, too. I think what it shows is that as a former player, first of all, the global basketball world is big, right? And yes, there’s the NBA, but him coming over here to Rwanda and taking this young team and building them and developing them, in a lot of ways it’s going to give him an opportunity to really show what he can do with young talent.

And I think there will be a lot of NBA teams who look at that, a lot of presidents, a lot of GMs, who look at that and say: ‘You know what? He’s got the skill set to do this. He can be … if he did this in Rwanda with a young group of players, we need a guy like that here.’

One of the differences is people may not have known about the work that he does. One of the things that we’re doing is making sure that now whenever there’s a job opening, people consider Robert Pack, people consider Liz, because of the work that they’re doing here on a global basis.

You went to Gorée Island on Saturday. (Note: Gorée is an island off the coast of Dakar. It’s known for its role in the 15th- to 19th-century Atlantic slave trade.) What was that like?

It’s such a beautiful place but so much tragedy, so much death, so much evil, so much sadness. And so, it was just this conflict of emotions, man, because you stand there and you think about what went on there. It made me sad. I cried. And it’s interesting, because we took a boat ride over there, and I just thought back to others and their experiences there, our forefathers, our ancestors. It just saddened me, man. It just saddened me what they were put through. So it was a bunch of conflicting feelings. A bunch of conflicting feelings.

What have been some of the things you’ve enjoyed food- and culturewise?

The food has been amazing, the people here have been great. The music’s been incredible. The hospitality of the Senegalese has just been terrific. I will tell you what’s so impressive here is the facilities. In this area here with this brand-new arena and the football stadium across the street, you can see the government buildings being built, the residential, commercial buildings. It’s really a city and a country that’s coming alive right in front of our faces.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.

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