Mali basketball star turns heads in Hawaii, BAL qualifiers come to and end and Abidjan Fighters get a woman coach – it’s all happening in African basketball

Germain Roebuck Jr. slams it home during a BAL East division qualifiers game in Johannesburg

Rising star Oumar Ballo drew the attention of NBA scouts by bagging MVP at the 2022 Maui Invitational in Hawaii, as Uganda’s City Oilers qualify for the BAL for the first time season and legendary female coach Liz Mills is named the head coach of Cote D’Ivoire’s, Abidjan Basketball Club Fighters.

by Silalei Shani, bird story agency

When Malian national and Arizona men’s basketball center, Oumar Ballo, was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2022 Maui Invitational in late November, the powerful, 7-feet-tall player made it clear he was Africa’s next big name in basketball.

After averaging 21 points and 10.7 rebounds and a career-high 30 points and 13 rebounds in the title game vs. Creighton, Ballo garnering plenty of attention. The junior from Mali is no new face to African basketball’s highlight reels, however.

Oumar Ballo during the Under 19 Basketball World Cup. Photo Courtesy : FIBA

Ballo played for Mali at the 2017 FIBA Under-16 African Championship in Mauritius, averaging 14 points and 12 rebounds a game to win the gold medal as well as making the tournament’s All Star Five. He also played for Mali at the 2018 FIBA Under-17 World Cup in Argentina where he bagged a tournament record of 32 rebounds and 32 points and won a gold medal with Mali at the Under-18 FIBA African Championship in his home town of Bamako, in 2018. In 2019, he competed at the FIBA Under-19 World Cup in Greece, where he led Mali to a silver medal – the best performance by an African team at a global basketball tournament.

Ballo also played at the Basketball Without Borders camp at the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina as one of the youngest participants.

Despite his size, skill and accomplishments, Ballo is not one to boast about his achievements, constantly deferring to the accomplishments of his teammates.

“I actually haven’t arrived because we haven’t done anything yet,” Ballo said when asked about his team’s dominance in Maui.

“It’s a long season. It’s a marathon. So, I’m just trying to run with the pace and trying to be available for my team,” he said.

Oumar Ballo and his team mates during the Under 19 Basketball World Cup. Photo: Courtesy FIBA

The season may be long but Ballo has put the collegiate basketball world on notice. Only two Malians have been drafted to the NBA – Soumaila Samake (who was also 7 feet tall) in 2000 and Cheikh Diallo, in 2016.

Closer to home, Basketball Africa League fans have been enjoying the final qualifying phase for next year’s edition of the BAL, coined “Road to BAL”, which ended in November in Johannesburg, South Africa. While many teams posted up numbers and moments to remember, Uganda’s City Oilers became the team to celebrate, with a hard-fought qualification week that earned them the final slot in their maiden BAL tournament.

Germain Roebuck Jr. slams it home during a BAL East division qualifiers game in Johannesburg

Despite a disappointing loss to the Cape Town Tigers (75-69), the game was a thriller for the ages that kept fans at the edges of their seats until the final whistle. The Oilers had one more chance to claim the final ticket in the third-place playoff game at the Ellis Park Arena in Johannesburg – against Burundian club, Urunani. With the Oilers leading by just one point at the half, the contest lived up to the pre-game hype, with the Oilers having to come from behind to finally break clear in the seventh minute of the fourth quarter. Germain Roebuck Jr. finished with a decisive double-double, giving him 20 points and 11 rebounds but at the end of the day it was a collective effort and key defensive adjustments gave the Oilers their opportunity to play in Africa’s biggest basketball stage.

“It’s emotional right now because we worked so hard to get here. Now we have finally done it. Today I started a little slow, but I knew could not let my team down. So, when the second half came, I knew I had to come out aggressively in the game,” Roeback said after the game.

Elsewhere on the continent, pioneering woman coach, Liz Mills, was recently appointed head coach of Ivorian team, the Abidjan Basketball Club Fighters. Hailing from Australia, Mills has coached teams in Zambia, Kenya, Cameroon, Rwanda and most recently Morocco. A trailblazer in her own right, some of her greater achievements include leading Kenya to a return to Afrobasket – Africa’s biggest basketball stage – after a 28-year dry spell and becoming the only female head coach at that same tournament. She also became the first woman to coach a professional Moroccan sports team in that country, guiding AS Sale to the quarter-finals of the 2022 Basketball Africa League (BAL).

Liz Mills. Photo courtesy of Pape EmirNBAE via Getty Images

Mills, who has been on the hunt for a new coaching job, has been quietly observing ABC Fighters’ performances over the last year as well as their participation at previous FIBA Club Championships – but it was their recent performance at the BAL Elite 16 West Division qualifiers in Abidjan that tipped the scales for her.

“I flew into Abidjan, to watch the West Division Elite 16 or finals. I really wanted to get a feel for some of these teams and see how they played, the benches – seeing how they behaved on the benches and seeing what kind of potential they had,” she explained.

She expressed excitement at the new challenge ahead of the next season of the BAL.

“Them successfully winning the West Division and obviously qualifying for BAL [made it] an easy decision on which club I would like to coach. The president of their club along with their board members – between both parties, we were able to reach an agreement. I’m really happy to be working with a team like ABC for next season’s BAL.”

Fighters’ captain Stephan Konate, is also looking forward to a new chapter with a new head coach.

“I know Coach Mills. She has been a men’s national basketball team coach and also the coach of As Sale. So based on her vast experience, she is able to take us far in this competition,“ he said.

The third season of the BAL will begin early next year, returning to Dakar, Cairo and Kigali.

bird story agency