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Basketball is booming in Rwanda — and the NBA is there for the ride

The popularity of basketball in Rwanda can be seen on courts around the country.
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
The popularity of basketball in Rwanda can be seen on courts around the country.

KIGALI, Rwanda — Dozens of young players sprawl out across a pair of colorful basketball courts at Club Rafiki, a youth center in Kigali, Rwanda. Parents and supporters watch from rows of bleachers.

Coaches work with players of varying ages, boys and girls. From the littlest children come shrieks of joy. From older players, focused stares, determination, precise shots at the basket.

Bizimana Bassam, one of the coaches, says that players show up as early as 7 a.m. on weekends, and that during school vacations, Club Rafiki can host as many as 500 young players.

Bassam played basketball as a child, but began coaching as an adult. He says a lot has changed since then. And some of the kids who he now coaches have aspirations of going pro.

"They want to play our whole world. It's a dream for them," he says.

Not far from where Bassam stands, a banner with big, block letters reads: "Club Rafiki Dreams Big."

Kids train at Club Rafiki in March.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Kids train at Club Rafiki in March.

Basketball is booming in Rwanda today — and it's easy to see the popularity. All over the country, there are people wearing jerseys of NBA superstars like Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. Club Rafiki has been in operation for 50 years. In 2022, Rwandan President Paul Kagame even showed up to unveil the club's recent renovations.

Nineteen-year-old Liliane Uwase has been playing basketball for three years, inspired by her brother who also plays. And in the game, she says she sees opportunity.

"If I study well, and I get some scholarship outside the country, I [can] go outside [the country] to show my talent ... I will be a good player and I would be a good doctor," she says.

While Uwase loves the game, she says it can feel inaccessible to kids like her, who don't have a lot of money.

"Here in our country, some children who are poor cannot afford [basketball]," she says. "They see it is for rich girls and boys who want to joke around, but the poor ones cannot get that opportunity."

Liliane Uwase takes a break for a moment at Club Rafiki.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Liliane Uwase takes a break for a moment at Club Rafiki.

And, as she points out, she's not very tall — and that means sometimes she gets underestimated.

"Some who are tall can go to play outside the country, but short ones like me, it's so difficult," she says. "Give us an opportunity, the poor ones, to play outside the country to prove our skills. Because even if you are taller than me, I can play better than you. Short ones can play like the taller ones."

Basketball has been played internationally in Africa since the 1960s. But the NBA launched the Basketball Africa League [BAL] in 2021. It's the first time the NBA has been involved in operating a league outside of North America. Now, it's in its fourth season.

It's part of an effort by the NBA to broaden its fanbase globally. The hope is that here, basketball could one day rival soccer's status on the continent.

Players go through their paces in a training session at Club Rafiki.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Players go through their paces in a training session at Club Rafiki.

This season includes 12 teams from 12 African countries, with games played in South Africa, Egypt, Senegal and Rwanda. The Armée Patriotique Rwandaise basketball team, known as APR, will represent Rwanda for the first time.

"There's a whole lot of excitement around APR because it's been about 14 years since we won a local championship," says Lt. David Nsengiyumva, APR's assistant manager. "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."

Nsengiyumva says that with BAL's recent entry into Africa, it means that some young players now see opportunities for themselves in Africa, rather than feeling a push to leave the continent.

"Kids wanted to go to the U.S. to play basketball, but now because of the BAL, they can play in the local league, go to the BAL and play high-level basketball while being in the country," he says.

Yassin Nshimiyimana, 16, hopes basketball can make him famous.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
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Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Yassin Nshimiyimana, 16, hopes basketball can make him famous.

At Club Rafiki, that's what 16-year-old Yassin Nshimiyimana is hoping for. Dressed in a red sleeveless shirt and shorts, he's focused as he runs drills on the court with the other players.

He's been playing basketball for three years, and one of the coaches identifies him as a standout.

"I want to be famous, to be known like 'Yassin is a great player we have in Rwanda,'" he says. "I get the money cause you can't play without getting money while you're famous."

And while he thinks he could one day play for the Rwandan national team, his style of play is influenced by NBA players, so much so that he was given a nickname: American.

Crowds gather to watch training at Club Rafiki.
/ Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
/
Jacques Nkinzingabo for NPR
Crowds gather to watch training at Club Rafiki.

"They call me American because [of] some crossover that I do ... smooth layups, so they say I play American basketball," he says.

Nshimiyimana thinks that one day basketball could rival soccer in Rwanda, as more people turn their attention to the BAL and the BK Arena, which has played host to the league's championships. And he thinks his country can also turn out home grown talent.

"Basketball for me, it's like I take it like a career job. I see people in Rwanda who play basketball, they reach far," he says. And I think to be playing basketball, I'll be famous and my life will be good playing basketball."

Copyright 2024 NPR

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.