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DAKAR, Senegal – The African basketball championship may lack star power — even electrical power on occasion. But with national pride at stake, it almost always entertains.
AfroBasket, which tipped off Friday in Senegal and Tunisia, can't be compared to a glitzy event like the NCAA tournament. Senegal's aging national stadium in the capital Dakar, for example, has no air conditioning. A recent women's AfroBasket game in Mali was paused because of a power cut.
International basketball federation FIBA turned to Senegal and Tunisia as emergency co-hosts of this men's championship just two months ago because Republic of Congo backed out, as did replacement host Angola. The 16-team tournament was pushed back to September, too close to training camps for many Africans who play in the NBA.
Tunisia hosted in August 2015, two months after 38 people were killed in a terrorist attack at a beach resort. As a precaution, games were moved to Rades, outside the capital Tunis.
The tournament still carries on, as it has done since 1962.
"They always end up finding a way, and it always ends up being a great tournament, so we must find a way to improve it, to get more out of it," said Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian who is president of the NBA's Toronto Raptors. "I've played in that tournament. I've coached in it. It's an unbelievable feeling. There's a remarkable atmosphere. I wish more people knew about it."
Arenas are abuzz with drumming, dancing, and flag waving. Boisterous Senegalese supporters packed Marius Ndiaye Stadium on Friday hours before their team took the floor, a floor that was freshly painted just three days earlier.
Even referees seem to feel it. In a March qualifier, a Malian player sank a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer against Senegal, pulled off his jersey and sprinted toward fans as if he had scored a goal at the soccer World Cup. No technical foul.
Wearing national colors is serious business for players, some of whom have grandparents who lived under colonial oppression.
"I take pride in it," said Senegal's Maurice Ndour, who played for the New York Knicks last season. "It will be my first time playing in Senegal in front of the home crowd. It's huge."
Senegal, with Minnesota Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng on board, will be under pressure to win the title, something it hasn't done since 1997. Angola is the 11-time African champion and hasn't missed the final since 1997. Nigeria captured its first title at the last AfroBasket in 2015.
Tunisia won in 2011 but will play without Dallas Mavericks center Salah Mejri, who said that the Mavericks preferred he rest a sore knee. Tunisia hosts the knockout phase after this weekend's flurry of games in Dakar and Rades. AfroBasket also provides a qualification path to FIBA's world championship in 2019 and the 2020 Olympics.
Top players sometimes opt out because of scheduling conflicts and, especially, their national federations' unwillingness to pay for insurance. Other NBA players not coming are Cameroonians Joel Embiid, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Pascal Siakam, as well as Congo's Bismack Biyombo and Emmanuel Mudiay.
The delayed tournament also makes it hard for Africans in American schools. Angolan Bruno Fernando, identified by FIBA as Bruno "Fernandes," has begun his freshman year at the University of Maryland.
Still, NBA and other scouts are expected, so players like 25-year-old Ndour, now a free agent, can help themselves as they help their teams. Carlos Morais of Angola was invited to the Raptors' training camp after earning MVP honors at the 2013 African championship.
Silvio De Sousa, who has committed to Kansas for 2018, is suiting up for Angola.
Joe Lopez, president of the SEED Academy, said many participants play professionally, "but you have two or three that will be discovered." He pointed to SEED student Privat Koyamba, 19, of Central African Republic.
"This will be for him a golden opportunity to showcase his talent," said Lopez, who was the starting center on Senegal's victorious team in 1978.
SEED is an international NGO in Senegal that trains promising young players with a goal to build future leaders.
Reggie Moore, born and raised in California and a naturalized Angolan, said AfroBasket play is "very physical" but he wasn't worried about the lack of air conditioning.
"It's not a big deal. We're used to it," said Moore, a 6-foot-7 power forward and Oral Roberts University alum.
Despite Africa's basketball potential, Ujiri warns that mismanagement threatens to stall progress. Uriji said governments must take responsibility for neglected stadiums and subpar sports programs. Leaks in the Dakar stadium's roof were patched up 48 hours before the tournament. It's the rainy season here.
"We're (Africa) moving forward in technology, we're moving forward in banking, we're moving forward in real estate," Uriji said. "While these things are getting better, sports are being left behind. How is that possible?"
The NBA has seen opportunity in Africa and has an academy outside Dakar to train the continent's top young players. The NBA has put on exhibition games in South Africa and says a regular-season game is coming to Africa at some point.
Ujiri said it's also a good sign that Africans — like him — are earning jobs in leadership positions, including coaching and scouting.
"I see that as growth of the game that's going to help get kids playing at a younger age," he said.