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Basketball takes hold in Rwanda, a country dominated by soccer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Basketball's popularity is growing across the African continent, and in Rwanda, it's easy to see. All over the country, we spotted people wearing jerseys of NBA superstars like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. To understand the global reach of a sport that, at its start, was decidedly American, we went to a place called Club Rafiki.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Hey.

SUMMERS: We arrived at a youth center with two big outdoor basketball courts, and it was hard not to smile.

We're watching some drills with some of the young players here at Club Rafiki. They're lifting their legs into the air, maintaining control of the ball, holding onto it and holding the ball high. The coach is counting down now.

UNIDENTIFIED COACH: Let's go. One, two.

SUMMERS: Kids of all ages, boys and girls, were running up and down the courts, instructed by a handful of patient coaches, from the littlest children came shrieks of joy, from older players, focused stares, determination, precise shots at the basket. Kids show up early on weekend mornings. This is Bismanah Bassam (ph). He's one of the coaches at Club Rafiki.

About how many kids come here?

BISMANAH BASSAM: It's a lot. I got 500.

SUMMERS: Five hundred kids?

BASSAM: Yeah. And vacation, we're going to start on Monday.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Pass it.

SUMMERS: Did you say vacation starts on Monday for the kids?

BASSAM: Yeah.

SUMMERS: He was wearing a black shirt with the Basketball Africa League logo, or BAL, as they call it, on one side. And he said things have changed a lot since he was a kid.

BASSAM: It's a lot (ph). We start, like, a funny game, and now we get to be a professionally - someone grew up over here, like my big brother, like Wilson. Everyone there get a motivation because of Wilson. They need to be like Wilson. They want to play like him.

SUMMERS: Wilson - he's talking about a Rwandan star player. Kids want to play like him. People look up to him. While it's not uncommon to see kids playing soccer in open stretches of land, basketball courts are less frequent sites, and it raises a question of access. That's something that 19-year-old Liliane Uwase (ph) brought up. She's been playing basketball for three years and is incredibly focused on her future.

LILIANE UWASE: If I study well, and I get some scholarship outside the country and go outside, show my talent, and I study hard, I will be a good player, and I will be a good doctor. I want to be a doctor.

SUMMERS: And it's clear that she doesn't want to be underestimated by anyone.

UWASE: Here in our country, some children who are poor cannot afford that basket. They say, like, it is for rich girls and boys who want to joke around, but the poor ones cannot get that opportunity. Some of all who are tall - they can go to play outside the country, but short ones like me are - it is so difficult. That's why - give us opportunity, the poor ones, to play outside the country to prove our skills because even if you are taller than me, I can play the - better than you. Yeah, just know that short ones can play like the taller ones.

SUMMERS: Basketball has been played internationally in Africa since the 1960s, but the NBA launched the Basketball Africa League in 2021. It's the first time the NBA has been involved in operating a league outside of North America, and now it's in its fourth season. It's part of an effort by the NBA to broaden its fan base globally. The hope is that here, basketball could one day rival soccer's status on the continent.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentleman, here, we got basketball school 19 (ph).

SUMMERS: To get a sense of just how much professional basketball has taken a hold in Rwanda, we stopped by a preseason game between the Rwandan team, APR, and an Egyptian team. And even though it was a preseason game, around a hundred fans showed up - mostly APR supporters, but a small group waved Egyptian flags.

We are at a preseason basketball game for APR, which is the Rwandan team, and a team from Egypt. And this has just been a punishing game - both teams putting pressure on both sides of the court, tons of big plays, huge threes. People seem to be really keyed up.

APR is making its first appearance playing in the Basketball Africa League this season. And at halftime, with APR up two over their Egyptian rivals, we pulled a team official aside to talk.

DAVID NSENGIYUMVA: There's a whole lot of excitement around APR 'cause it's been about 14 years since we won a local championship, and that really hyped up everybody. And now that we get to represent the country in the BAL, it's a huge honor for us.

SUMMERS: David Nsengiyumva (ph) is the Rwandan team's assistant manager.

NSENGIYUMVA: The BAL coming to Africa, it really upgraded our level of basketball because back then, kids growing up wanted to go to the U.S., but now because of the BAL now, they get to - they can play in the local league to go in the BAL and play high-level basketball while being in the country. So the BAL coming to Africa really upgraded our local level of basketball and gave kids hope to play high-level basketball while in Africa.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #1: (Chanting) Offense, offense, offense, offense, offense, offense.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN #2: (Chanting) Defense, defense, defense, defense, defense, defense.

SUMMERS: Back at Club Rafiki, that is exactly what 16-year-old Yassine Shimiamana (ph) says he wants for his future. He was wearing a bright red sleeveless shirt as he jogged over to us.

YASSINE SHIMIAMANA: Actually, I want to be famous, to be known. Like, Yassine is a great player we have in Rwanda. And I get the money 'cause you can't play without getting money while you're famous.

SUMMERS: I have heard that you have a nickname. You want to tell us what it is?

YASSINE: Yeah. They used to call me American 'cause there are some crossovers that I do, the smooth layups, so they say I play American basketball.

SUMMERS: They say you play like an American?

YASSINE: Yeah.

SUMMERS: And Yassine not only plays like an American basketball player, he loves to watch the NBA almost every day. When I asked him which players he liked and looked up to, the answers rushed out of him.

YASSINE: In NBA - Jordan Poole, Stephen Curry. There is Ja Morant, Trae Young. But actually, I like the way that Jordan Poole plays. He's, like, my role model, you know?

SUMMERS: He's talking about Washington Wizards guard Jordan Poole.

YASSINE: Basketball, for me, it's like - I take it like a career job 'cause I see people in Rwanda who play basketball. They reach far, and I say - to be playing basketball - I'll be famous, and my life will be good playing basketball.

SUMMERS: As we left Club Rafiki, kids were still sprawled across the courts, running drills, listening to their coaches. Yassine, who we'd been talking to, ran back to join them. My eye was drawn to a blue banner that stretched across one portion of the fence. It said Club Rafiki dreams big.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG PEOPLE ARE THE FUTURE")

THE GOOD ONES: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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