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NBA glitz, glamour on show in South Africa

© AFP / by Pierre DONADIEU | NBA player Kyle Lowry (L) shoots during the NBA Africa Game 2017 basketball match between Team Africa and Team World on August 5, 2017 in Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - 

The TicketPro Dome arena in an upscale Johannesburg suburb became a mini Madison Square Garden Saturday as American basketball staged an exhibition match to "sell" the sport.

Basketball ranks among many low-profile sports in South Africa, where football, rugby and cricket dominate the airwaves and sports pages, and take a huge chunk of sponsorship cash.

It was the second exhibition game involving National Basketball Association (NBA) stars in Johannesburg within three years and Team World overcame Team Africa 108-97 before a 10,000 crowd.

Team World defeated Team Africa 101-97 at another, smaller Johannesburg venue two years ago.

The good-natured spectators did lack some of the intensity associated with regular-season matches in the United States, and the same could be said of the match.

But it was not about the result or who scored the most points. This was all about giving Africa a sample of NBA glitz and glamour.

And a gravity-defying dunk from Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics for Team World will surely have won a few converts.

A day before the match, the training at the same venue had the appearance of a holiday camp.

Between two dunks and a couple of attempts at three points, Dallas Mavericks back and Team World captain Dirk Nowitzki was having fun with compatriot Dennis Schroeder of the Hawks, who lined up with Team Africa thanks to his Gambian origins.

"It's incredible that basketball is growing in Africa. There are more and more African players in the NBA, but also in the universities," says Nowitzki, who travelled to Johannesburg with his wife and three children.

"The continent is huge, opportunities and talent are growing and it is good to be able to help the development of basketball in Africa," he told AFP.

Among the activities of the visiting teams ahead of the match were coaching sessions, meeting fans and assisting in the building of houses in poor neighbourhoods.

A dozen players went to a disadvantaged children's centre in Ennerdale, a predominantly mixed-race township south of Johannesburg, and spent nearly two hours with them.

- 'The welcome is extraordinary' -

"What did you eat to be that big?," said a stunned child as he looked up at the 2.13-metre frame of Nowitzki.

In the middle of decrepit buildings, on a blue and red court built two years ago during the first NBA tour to the country, the giants teach some movements to the eager youngsters.

Children are raised in the air to make dunks. Others sneak between the legs of a Cameroonian with the 76ers, Joel Embiid.

"I am happy, I learn new techniques with these players, it's cool. They want us to succeed in basketball," enthuses 13-year-old Thabo.

"It is always special for me to come to Africa, the welcome is extraordinary and one feels at home," says Clint Capela, the Switzerland-born pivot of the Rockets, who is of Congolese origin.

Former Arsenal and France football superstar Thierry Henry, an NBA fan and VIP guest on this tour, looks with amusement at the hesitant shots of the budding basketball players.

"The African continent has given a lot to the NBA, big names have evolved," he said.

"It's important to give back a little and that's what these players are doing."

NBA chief executive Adam Silver Said: "In 2050, a quarter of the world's population will live in Africa, so as a business we are looking to this large market.

"We are seeing tremendous opportunities and are thinking of accelerating our growth here."

A third game in Africa is scheduled for next year with many countries, apart from South Africa, keen to host it.

by Pierre DONADIEU

© 2017 AFP