Egypt's hotbed of basketball talent back on display as BAL returns to Cairo

Al Ahly will look to defend Basketball Africa League title next month as sport gains in popularity and African athletes find pathways to higher levels

Al Ahly of Egypt defeated Senegalese team AS Douanes at BK Arena in Kigali, Rwanda, last year to win the Basketball Africa League. Getty Images
Powered by automated translation

The Basketball Africa League (BAL) is set to return to Cairo for a third consecutive year next month, cementing Egypt’s growing status as a major player in the sport on the continent.

A collaboration between the NBA and Fiba (International Basketball Federation), the BAL is currently in its fourth season and will see Cairo giants Al Ahly begin their title defence when the Nile Conference tips off on April 19.

Moroccan champions FUS Rabat won the Kalahari Conference last week in Pretoria, South Africa, to secure direct qualification to the play-offs and finals in Rwanda, along with Angolan side Petro de Luanda.

Cairo’s Al Ahly will be looking to join them but will face stiff competition from City Oilers (Uganda), league newcomers Al Ahly Ly (Libya) and Bangui Sporting Club (Central African Republic), when they all square off in the Nile Conference between April 19-27. The regular season will conclude with the Sahara Conference, taking place in Dakar, Senegal, from May 4-12.

Egyptian clubs have won two of the three BAL editions so far, with Zamalek triumphing in the inaugural season before Al Ahly reigned supreme last year.

The league brought an NBA-like flair to basketball fans in Cairo, with star-studded courtside seats and mid-game entertainment providing a unique experience for spectators and players alike.

“It was a great experience overall,” Al Ahly centre Omar Oraby told The National. “The main thing that stood out to me was the organisation. For something like that to be organised in Egypt, it was very different than local competitions or the African competitions that we’re normally used to.

“I know this year is going to be much tougher than last year. All the teams are getting much better and they’re bringing much better talent.”

History for Al Ahly

Oraby believes Egypt has “some of the most talented local players in Africa” and credits team unity for Al Ahly’s BAL success last season.

“We stayed together as a team. We got new players but we didn’t lose the chemistry aspect of the team,” explained the University of Southern California (USC) alum.

“We didn’t bring one or two American players and just let them have the ball and let them play and let them lead, no we didn’t do that. That was something very good that our coach did, he kept control of the team and everyone played his role. That was the main thing.”

Winning the BAL sent Al Ahly to the Fiba Intercontinental Cup, where they made history by stunning NBA G League side Ignite – with the help of a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double from Oraby – before finishing in fourth place.

The Cairo side are the first African team to record a win at the Intercontinental Cup, but they walked away with a bittersweet feeling after narrowly losing to the Zhejiang Golden Bulls in the bronze medal game.

“That was a heartbreaker for us,” recalls Oraby.“We made history in the tournament but to win a bronze medal, of course that would have been something else.

“That’s one of the things that’s pushing us to try to win the BAL this year, so we can go again to the Intercontinental Cup and try to achieve what we couldn’t do last year.”

NBA lays roots in Egypt

Egypt isn’t just making waves at the club level. With more and more attention being given to unearthing talent in Africa, the NBA has been expanding its operations across the continent, and last year opened new offices in Cairo and Nairobi, to go with the ones in Dakar, Johannesburg, and Lagos.

“Africa has become a very important part of the scouting world, as far as identifying players as early as possible for all the teams in the NBA,” San Antonio Spurs’ legendary coach Gregg Popovich said earlier this season. “We all know how many foreign players there are in the league and it seems that every year there are more and more African players in the league.”

The NBA Egypt office, which launched in January 2023, has already started to make an impact, with clinics, community events, and a Jr NBA programme, highlighting its efforts in boosting the sport at the grassroots level across the nation.

“Egypt has huge potential for the NBA. For starters, from a population point of view, it’s a huge country. So, if we can help the ecosystem and grassroots in Egypt, we can help find new talent,” Mohamed Abdel-Motaleb, head of NBA Egypt, told The National.

“We need to increase the accessibility of the sport and we have that slogan that any kid, when they see a ball, instead of kicking it, they dribble it. So instead of playing football, we want them to think basketball first.”

Talent identification is a key objective for NBA Egypt, who signed a multi-year deal with real estate company Maven Developments to collaborate on launching the Jr NBA programme (targeting youth aged 12 to 16) as well as other activations and events throughout the year.

The BAL is another growth pillar for NBA Egypt, as is the NBA Academy Africa in Senegal, which currently has three Egyptian teenagers – Seifeldin Hendawy, Ahmed Nedal and Ali Assran – living, studying, and training there.

“Today, as we speak, out of almost 450 players in the NBA, around 50 players are African or second generation, coming from an African parent. So Africa is a gold mine, a talent mine for the NBA,” said Abdel-Motaleb.

“And we can see this clearly in the fact the last MVP is Joel Embiid who is Cameroonian. And Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose parents are from Nigeria. And the rookie with the most potential this year, Victor Wembanyama, his father is of Congolese descent. So Africa has huge potential for talent.”

Changing landscape for homegrown talent

The only two Egyptians to make it to the NBA, Alaa Abdelnaby and Abdel Nader, grew up in the United States. But there is now reason to believe that homegrown Egyptian talent can carve a path to the biggest league on the planet.

When Oraby first went to the US to study at and play for Rice University before transferring to USC after his sophomore year, it was an anomaly to see an Egyptian play Division I basketball in the US collegiate system. Upon graduation in 2014, he worked out with several NBA teams and played for the Houston Rockets in the Summer League before returning to Egypt, where he had to fulfil mandatory military service, which forced him to miss out on the chance to accept a training camp offer with the LA Lakers.

Fast-forward eight years and there are now eight Egyptian men playing Division I basketball, and two more are competing in the NBA G League.

On the women’s side, Egyptian Jana El Alfy, a product of the NBA Global Academy, was recruited by the University of Connecticut, who are the No 3 seeds in the ongoing NCAA tournament. El Alfy has been injured this season and hasn’t played for UConn yet but is expected to play a huge role for the Huskies next year.

March Madness features another Egyptian, 18-year-old Jannah Eissa, who was born and raised in Cairo, playing for North Carolina State University.

“I definitely think the pathway exists for Egyptian players to make it to the NBA,” says Oraby.

“I think people know now that there is talent in this part of the world. They acknowledged there is talent in Egypt and this region, so they’re paying closer attention to the area as a whole.

“Nowadays, to go to play college basketball in the US it’s become very easy for us Egyptians. So many agents, scouts, and coaches know the players in Egypt, they talk to a lot of the young players. I know a lot of U16 or U17 players here in Egypt that are being contacted by coaches in the US to go to play there.

“And from there, it’s up to the player, if he can prove himself and take it seriously, if he has the right mindset, he can make it.

“Soon we’re going to see someone from the Middle East, or Egypt especially, to declare for the [NBA] draft. We’ve already been close a couple of times but it hasn’t happened. I think it’s going to happen soon.”

Oraby himself was spotted by a Rice University assistant coach when he was competing for Egypt at the Fiba U19 World Cup in New Zealand, which paved the way for his collegiate career. Recently, 20-year-old Abdullah Ahmed was drafted straight from Al Ahly in Cairo to the Westchester Knicks in the NBA G League.

“There’s definitely a pathway for those who really want it,” Oraby added.

National team ‘on the right track’

The Egyptian men’s national team has been building momentum over the past couple of years, which has also garnered significant attention globally. At the 2023 Fiba World Cup, Egypt won two of their five games to earn a place in the Olympic qualifying tournament as the second-best African team at the World Cup behind South Sudan.

“I think it’s one of, if not the best generation of Egyptian national team right now, with all the players available to choose from. There’s a large pool of players to choose from, whether those who play in Egypt or abroad,” said Oraby.

The Egyptian Basketball Federation has done a great job in bringing together several players with Egyptian roots based abroad.

The likes of Abdel Nader, a former Phoenix Suns small forward, and New York-born Patrick Gardner, who plays in the NBA G League for the Long Island Nets, are now part of Team Egypt, and they bring a great deal of experience to a squad that already boasts the talents of star point guard Ehab Amin, Anas Mahmoud, Assem Marei, and Oraby, among others.

Tough road to Paris 2024

Egypt landed in a brutal group, alongside hosts Greece, and the Dominican Republic, in the Olympic qualifying tournament, which will take place in Piraeus early July. With NBA stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves, set to suit up for Greece and Dominican Republic respectively, Oraby acknowledges Egypt’s chances are slim but believes such big match-ups are exactly what the team needs.

“Even if we don’t qualify, it’s going to be a good experience for the players to play against this level of competition,” said the 32-year-old centre.

“In the World Cup, we benefited a lot from all these games. We had good results, but even the games we lost to Lithuania and Montenegro, ultimately this is what makes national teams improve.

“Tunisia have reached where they are right now, always making Olympics and World Cups, because they play against these types of teams all the time; that makes a huge difference. When you get to play against this level of competition regularly, this is what makes you grow as a team. So we’re on the right track and hopefully it gets better for Egypt.”

Be it at club or country level, grassroots or collegiate, Egyptian basketball is certainly picking up steam, with plenty of potential ready to be tapped into.

Updated: March 27, 2024, 7:17 AM