After helping to build the West African nation of Mali into a women’s basketball power, a remarkable achievement for one of the world’s poorest countries, Hamane Niang was elected in 2019 as the president of the sport’s global governing body. As such, he is basketball’s highest-ranking international official and was scheduled to preside over the Olympic basketball competition beginning next month in Tokyo. But, on Sunday, Niang stepped aside at least temporarily from his position as president of FIBA, basketball’s governing body, as The New York Times prepared to publish an investigation into allegations of systemic sexual harassment and abuse of dozens of female players in Mali, the majority of them teenagers, at least since the early 2000s.
Niang, 69, has not been accused of committing sexual abuse. But his critics say he largely ignored the assault of women for a dozen years between 1999 and 2011, when he served first as the president of Mali’s basketball federation and then as the country’s sports minister. And, those critics say, with further inaction as president of FIBA, Niang continues to leave female players vulnerable to exploitation in his home country, a predominantly Muslim former French colony where women experience extreme inequality in daily life. Niang “strongly denies” the accusations, FIBA said in an email to The Times on Sunday night, but he will step down as head of the organization and will cooperate while it conducts its own investigation. Niang did not respond to a list of questions sent to him last week by The Times through FIBA, but said in an email on Sunday night, “I was never implicated and I never had knowledge in any way of the accusations described in your correspondence.”
Speaking to Yahoo Finance Live, Dikembe Mutombo singled out Africa as a critical growth market for the league, given its demographics. More than 60% of the population is under the age of 25, making it the youngest population in the world. “This is a dream come true,” Mutombo said. “More than 800 million people living on the continent are under the age of 24 years old. So, we have a chance to grow this game before [the population] reaches 2 billion people.”
As a global ambassador for the NBA, Mutombo has played a critical role in building the league’s brand around the world. But the launch of NBA Africa is more personal, given his connections to the continent, he said. He’s hopeful the new entity will encourage more investors to bet on the future of Africa. “I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Mutombo said. “The best place for [investors] to come [invest in] is the continent of Africa. But that goal will not happen, if we African people do not invest in ourselves. What we have to do, is to build more arenas, build more facilities where our young people can go, and develop and become a great basketball player. We cannot sit and wait for the NBA, to come do everything.”
While Egypt’s Zamalek celebrated on a stage as the 2021 Basketball Africa League champions, guard Walter Hodge held his Hakeem Olajuwon Award trophy up high and spoke of the promising future of the new league. “This is the first time that this league is here,” Hodge said on May 30 in Kigali, Rwanda, “and it’s going to be here for a long time.”
Those words from Hodge had to be music to the ears of BAL president Amadou Fall, who presented the MVP trophy. Fall has been at the forefront of the long, trying process to get the league started. Fall announced the arrival of the BAL on Feb. 16, 2019. The initial expectation was that the inaugural season would include 12 teams from across the continent with games taking place in seven African cities beginning on March 13, 2020. But the coronavirus pandemic altered those plans. The season finally got underway on May 16 with 12 teams playing all games in Kigali.
“Obviously, having the opportunity to do something that’s never been done before and especially in a pandemic, there’s a lot of anticipation and it took efforts from really the entire NBA family,” Fall told The Undefeated. “Incredible jobs were done here in Rwanda with the conditions that allow us to implement a very stringent COVID protocol. We were focused on making sure we finished strong. And our goal was to have a successful and safe event, where everybody goes home and just have some safety of everyone involved. And we’ve had some really competitive basketball too. We have reasons to really be superpositive.”