The NBA Set To Play First Game in Africa

On August 1, 2015 the NBA will play their first exhibition game in Africa. It is another first in what has been almost 40 years of global expansion by the league.

The NBA Set To Play First Game in Africa
The Miami Heat's Luol Deng, native of South Sudan, will captain the African Team in the NBA's first game on the African continent this summerPhoto: Getty Images

The NBA has announced that the league will play the first ever exhibition game in Africa to conclude the Basketball Without Borders camp this summer. The game will take place in Johannesburg, South Africa on August 1, 2015 and marks another first for the almost forty years of global expansion by the NBA.

The NBA's global footprint has only expanded since September 9, 1978 when the Washington Bullets (also the first NBA team to visit China) lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the first ever overseas NBA game. From 1978-1988 the Washington Bullets, Phoenix Suns, Seattle Supersonics (who went on the first real European tour in 1984), and New Jersey Nets played twenty-three games in Israel, the Philippines, China, West Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. 

In 1988, the Atlanta Hawks became the first NBA team to play in the Soviet Union, when they spent fifteen days behind the Iron Curtain, where they played three games against the Soviet National Team. The Hawks played in Georgia, Lithuania, and finally Moscow, where they lost to the Soviets 132-123. The players described it as a "culture shock" and Dominique Wilkins said the food tasted "like it had radiation in it."

The NBA held its first regular season games outside of North America in Tokyo, Japan on November 2-3, 1990, a two game series between the Phoenix Suns and the Utah Jazz, which the teams split. During the decade, the NBA opened the regular season in Japan in 1992, 1994, 1996, and finally for the last time in 1999.

In the 1990s the NBA held their first preseason game in the Caribbean (1991) and their first game in Latin America (Mexico City, 1992). Puerto Rico got their first NBA game in 1993, the same year two NBA teams faced each other in Europe for the first time. Then in 1997, Latin America hosted its first regular season NBA game when the Mexico City crowd watched the Houston Rockets defeat the Dallas Mavericks 108-106.

In the 21st century, the NBA became the first major sport to hold a game in China (2004) and in 2013, the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards played the first NBA game in South America as part of the NBA Global Games. Through tournaments and anuual events such as the McDonalds Championships (1987-1999), NBA Challenge (1994-1996), the China Games (beginning in 2004), Europe Live (2006-2013), and the NBA Global Games (2013-present), the NBA has reached a worldwide audience. 

The NBA's roots in Africa go back three decades with more than thirty players from Africa playing in the NBA since the Houston Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon, a native of Nigeria, in 1984. According to Jeff Zillgitt with USA Today, the NBA's Basketball Without Borders has conducted twelve camps in Africa, reaching one thousand participants from thirty-one African countries. The NBA opened an office in South Africa in 2010 headed by Amodou Gallo Fall who issued the following statement:  

"It is a pivotal moment for the growth of basketball on the continent, and we are grateful to the Players Association, players and team personnel who have committed to be part of this historic event."

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver added: "The NBA has worked hard to grow the game of basketball in Africa, and I am excited to take this next step of playing our first game on the continent. Our players have been tremendous partners in this effort, and all of us look forward to sharing the authentic NBA experience and the values of our game with fans in Africa."

According to the Wall Street Journal, the game is set to feature first and second generation African players against both native and international NBA players. Miami Heat forward and native of South Sudan, Luol Deng, is set to lead the African team while Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul is set to be captain of the world team. Deng, involved in a number of causes relative to his native country, said he was "extremely proud to be a part of the NBA's first game in Africa."  

Full rosters have not been announced, but the NBA plans to send an all-star delegation to the event that includes high profile names such as San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich, coach Lionel Hollins from the Brooklyn Nets, current Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks, along with many others. Toronto Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, born in Nigeria, is also expected to attend along with NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo and the NBA's Africa Ambassador Hakeem Olajuwon.

The NBA sees this as an important step in increasing basketball's popularity on a contient in which soccer remains the most popular sport. The event will also aid the Boys and Girls Clubs of South Africa, the SOS Children's Villages Association of South Africa, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.