JOHANNESBURG (AP) The NBA is in Africa for an exhibition, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver expects more important games to come.
”Stay tuned,” Silver said Thursday as 20 NBA stars, including Chris Paul and Luol Deng, prepare to play at a small arena in downtown Johannesburg – the first NBA game of any kind in Africa. ”This is an experiment of sorts.”
Although he didn’t give an exact time frame, Silver said a pre-season game and then a regular-season game on the continent was the logical progression for the NBA, which is on a ”fast track” to build a brand in soccer-crazy Africa.
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”Part of why I’m here is to continue to investigate new facilities,” Silver said. ”We would want a larger, more modern arena for a regular or pre-season game here. And it’s also to test the response here. These things just take time, but I’m very confident that in the not-too-distant future we will be playing, to begin with, a pre-season game on the continent of Africa.”
Having already explored possibilities in China and Europe, Africa’s next for the NBA, which has brought some big names – coaches as well as players – to Johannesburg for Saturday’s exhibition game at Ellis Park Arena.
There’s Paul, an eight-time All Star, who will captain Team World. Deng, a two-time All Star, will lead a Team Africa. Pau and Marc Gasol have also made the trip, as has San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and coach of the year Mike Budenholzer of the Atlanta Hawks. Also on the rosters are Al-Farouq Aminu and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who both have parents from Nigeria.
This game’s the next step in the league’s links to Africa that began with the first-round draft of Hakeem Olajuwon by the Houston Rockets in 1984, Silver said. Olajuwon, who is from Nigeria and is part of this trip to South Africa as an NBA ambassador, went on to become a two-time NBA champion and 12-time All Star.
The NBA’s presence in Africa, and particularly southern Africa, is still comparatively small. On Saturday, the stars will play at an old, 4,000-seat arena, tiny for NBA standards. But it’s sold out and it’s a start, Silver told a small group of reporters at his hotel.
”What I’d like to see is a group of some of our very best players showcasing the game, demonstrating how fun and exciting the game is,” Silver said. ”The players are bringing their talents direct to Johannesburg as opposed to people getting it off media.”
The low profile of the NBA in South Africa can also work in players’ favor for now, with some of the NBA’s top names walking around their hotel lobby in suburban Johannesburg unnoticed by locals.
Some of them will use the offseason trip to go on a safari and visit the foundation of late South African president Nelson Mandela, Silver said, among other excursions. There will also be visits to museums, and coaching clinics in poorer neighborhoods around Johannesburg. Even Silver, who got married recently, said he was taking the opportunity for a honeymoon after the game. He and his wife will go to the Seychelles, off the east coast of Africa.
Silver said there was a large amount of ”symbolism” to the NBA’s visit to Africa and its first game on the continent, comparing it in some ways to President Barack Obama’s recent trips to Kenya and Ethiopia.
”(It’s) so much more than just a game,” Silver said.
Adding to the symbolism, the Team World versus Team Africa exhibition will take place at the same stadium complex where the late Mandela famously wore a South African rugby jersey to a game in 1995 to help unite the country as it emerged from apartheid, the story told in Clint Eastwood’s ”Invictus” movie.
The NBA players were aware of that connection, Silver said, after they attended talks this week by members of the league’s Africa office.
Follow Gerald Imray on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP