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Live From Kigali: Tales From the Basketball Africa League

Last Updated: July 23, 2021
Ros Gold-Onwude and DJ Poizon Ivy take Boardroom behind the scenes of an incredible two weeks in Rwanda at the BAL.

It felt like the beginning of a new age. A new era.

After a year of delay due to COVID-19, the Basketball Africa League debuted with a two-week tournament in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali comprised of 12 of the best domestic clubs from seven African nations. A joint venture between the NBA and FIBA, the BAL is a groundbreaking effort to bring a premier, centralized basketball league to the continent — and all the infrastructure, jobs, TV viewership, and moneymaking opportunities that come with it.

The goal is to not just grow the sport of basketball in Africa and develop the world’s next great superstars, but also to highlight the beauty, heritage, culture that lives and breathes there.

Due to the pandemic, what was supposed to be a full inaugural season became a tourney held from May 16-30.

With the first BAL season now in the books, Boardroom spoke with two people on the ground in Kigali who had a close-up view of the tournament: our own Ros Gold-Onwude, who covered the event for ESPN, and Ivy “DJ Poizon Ivy” Awino, the in-house turntablist and music director for the event.

They discussed the unique experience of witnessing a historic, impactful, and resonant moment for basketball history — what it all means in the bigger picture for the future of the African continent.

Ros Gold-Onwude: Reporting From Rwanda

“This is near and dear to my heart.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, Ros Gold-Onwude’s Nigerian-born father told her that she always has to know where she came from. She played basketball at Stanford and later for the Nigerian national team, and her passion for her father’s homeland is ever-present. With a commitment to visiting Africa once a year, she’s put in sweat equity, traveling to Johannesburg and Lagos and working the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program for three straight summers in South Africa.

“There was an opportunity that presented itself to be in Africa for a week and see this historic, impactful and important moment for basketball history, [and] certainly for the future of Africa in general,” she said.

Gold-Onwude’s ESPN responsibilities saw her recording on-site hits for SportsCenter that aired in Africa as well as North and South America, interviewing BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall, African NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo, Nigerian-born Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri, and former NBA All-Star Joakim Noah. She also provided coverage for ESPN’s SportsNation and a longer feature that lives on the network’s YouTube page.

With so many big names converging on Kigali, the BAL was an important staging area for world diplomacy. Both Rwandan president Paul Kagame and France president Emmanuel Macron were in attendance, and a major reason for Macron’s trip was to apologize on behalf of France for its role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

“It felt so much bigger than who ended up with 10 points and four rebounds,” Gold-Onwude said.

The tournament was the first major initiative of NBA Africa, a new entity overseeing the league’s business on the continent, including the BAL, content distribution, grassroots development of players, infrastructure, and social responsibility initiatives. Taking into account equity stakes purchased by outside investors, the NBA values the new venture at upwards of $1 billion.

“We believe that basketball can become a top sport in Africa over the next decade,” league commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at an NBA Africa press conference last month.

As Gold-Onwude lays it out, making basketball a top sport in African will take a dedicated, multi-faceted approach. Regular basketball camps and clinics will ensure that the next NBA or WNBA superstar from the continent will start playing the game so much earlier than Joel Embiid, who only picked up the sport as a teen, with the chance to be even more of a refined product once they decide to enter college, pro leagues overseas, or any number of emerging alternative paths.

“The pipeline for high-level talent out of Africa is going to be very impressive,” she said.

Developing these players will require investing in better coaching, facilities, and infrastructure. But if those improvements can be realized, the BAL can expect to grow not just as a talent incubator, but a quality attraction for a young, untapped viewing audience that could lead to tremendous financial dividends on the continent over time.

“That trickles down to communities, gives pride and Africanism, gives motivation,” Gold-Onwude said. “This is what happens when you expand internationally. There’s so much to navigate beyond just the game or what jerseys you’re putting on these people’s bodies.”

How Ivy “DJ Poizon Ivy” Awino Found the BAL Sound

Photo by Nicole Sweet

“It was almost as though this opportunity was created and crafted around me and for me. There was no way that it could have eluded me.”

Born in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, Ivy Awino moved to Dallas and spent ages 12 to 18 as a Dallas Mavericks ball girl. Coincidentally, BAL president Gallo Fall was a Mavs executive at the time as their director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs. As a young immigrant kid from Africa, she recalls seeing him on the sidelines at a time when she was looking for people in important positions who looked like her.

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After attending Marquette University in Milwaukee and working her way as a radio and concert DJ as “Poizon Ivy,” Awino joined the Dallas Wings as their DJ in 2016 and became the second woman to become an NBA team’s official DJ when she joined the Mavericks later that year. In 2020, she assumed an additional role as the team’s senior manager of corporate social responsibility.

But Awino always knew she’d eventually love to be an in-arena DJ somewhere in Africa after having worked so many Mavericks games and even a few NBA All-Star Weekends, always trying to give a platform to African artists.

“I’m a huge pan-Africanist,” she said. “Not specifically from the continent, but all over the diaspora.”

Photo by Nicole Sweet

Awino finally got that chance in 2017, working the NBA Africa Game in Johannesburg. The same production company which staffed that game, 3 Point Productions, ended up with the BAL account.

She was an ideal fit to lead the all-important task of being in charge of the music for the league’s introduction to the world.

With the help of a couple of fellow DJs on music directing and sound recording, Awino tried to reimagine the music that would be played there in a unique and authentic way that would be suitable for the setting. Everyone agreed that they should be really intent on “keeping it local,” with the help of some informal Twitter polling gauging viewers’ musical expectations for the tournament.

Due to refreshingly strict quarantine protocols in Rwanda, Awino’s first time at the Kigali Arena wasn’t until the tournament’s May 16 launch date. The arena was divided in half, with one side accessible by vaccinated individuals exercising protocols, including players and personnel who were tested daily inside a bubble, while the other side was a strict red zone for unvaccinated fans.

Having the proper equipment at overseas venues is often a trickier business than it is stateside, with power supply and other necessities sourced and troubleshot from all over the world. Test runs were crucial for testing everything out ahead of time. The tournament’s opening ceremony was an enormous deal — the first chance for the NBA and FIBA to proudly announce its newly-created presence in Africa to a global audience — so nothing could be left up to chance.

“The pressure, obviously, of building something ceremonious was there,” Awino said. “So I did what I did. I cooked. I had it all scripted perfectly.”

Ivy had a favorable Hennessy-sponsored perch by the center of the court, almost like a platform, from which she earned plenty of time in front of the TV cameras over the course of the fortnight. And as everything crescendoed toward the opening ceremony, the power went out at the arena. The ceremonial music, the game ball delivery, and all the pomp and circumstance never made the final product.

“When you work in live [events], the measure of how good you are at what you do is how quickly and how well you’re able to roll with the punches,” Awino said. “It was a big game. Everybody was tuning in to watch J. Cole and the Patriots.”

So she rolled.

The hometown Patriots played the opening match against Nigerian club Rivers Hoopers, and the object of fascination was multi-platinum rapper Jermaine Cole, better known as J. Cole, hooping for the hometown team. Awino had DJ’d a couple of Patriots practices as both parties got ready for the opener, communicating with members of Cole’s management team during the process for planning purposes.

“I had to normalize walking around the bubble and bumping into Jermaine everywhere,” she said, “down to the point where the day his album dropped I had bumped into him.”

Two days after Cole’s “The Off-Season” came out, he made his BAL debut with the Patriots. So, would Awino dare play the man’s own music while he did his thing on the court?

“Of course I did! I feel like he literally made an album for him to play basketball to,” she said with a laugh. “”95 South” is like the perfect team run-on song. We didn’t do it too much, but we paid homage to a great song, great album, great presence. And we kept it moving. It doesn’t get better than that.”

Over the course of the two weeks, where she’d often have to DJ for five hours straight for a doubleheader, Awino tailored each game’s music to the individual teams and players, opting for Arabic music for Monastir, Zamalek or any of the Northern African teams, and the music of Senegal for AS Douanes. When Zamalek beat Monastir for the title, she curated things in honor of BAL MVP Walter Hodge, who hails from Puerto Rico.

“He’s like, I need my Bad Bunny. I need my Ozuna,” she said.

What’s on the Horizon

Instead of figuring out what the Western world can extract from Africa, Gold-Onwude said that the BAL is about what all of us can put into the continent.

Through sport, there’s this opportunity to tell or reframe stories of Africa’s many cultures, heritages, languages, skin colors, and religions; shining a light on the lives of African and Black people in not just the seven countries where BAL teams play, but the other 47 African countries as well. There’s a great chance through basketball, she said, not only to open eyes and celebrate the glory, passion, and strength of African culture, but also to promote diversity, change, and inclusion. To create bonds among nations.

“This was a showcase of how this league being on the continent is good for all business, all adjacent industries,” Awino said.  “What we needed was a proof of concept, and now we have it.”

The proof of concept is there for a full-season league in the future in multiple arenas and countries across Africa, especially with the NBA and FIBA’s resources and support. The hope is that BAL turns into an evolutionary EuroLeague, a cross-cultural melting pot that brings people together, allows rivalries to flourish, and develops the next Luka Doncic.

This concept will eventually include a women’s league. Last month, Adam Silver described that development as inevitable.

“To see this place really represent on the big stage with all eyes on them with the BAL internationally, they really met the moment,” Gold-Onwude said. “So often, Africa has been a place we’ve exported out from, whether bodies or rare materials. Here, we’re investing straight into the Motherland and saying ‘this is going to be for you to build and have pride in and create legacies on the continent.’ There’s so much power in that.”

About The Author
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung
Shlomo Sprung is a Senior Staff Writer at Boardroom. He has more than a decade of experience in journalism, with past work appearing in Forbes, MLB.com, Awful Announcing, and The Sporting News. He graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2011, and his Twitter and Spotify addictions are well under control. Just ask him.