As Basketball Africa League’s President, Amadou Gallo Fall Will Continue His Life’s Work

NEW YORK CITY -- An African teenager climbs the wall of the local private high school and hops over it, finding his salvation on the other side.

Its dimensions: 94 feet long, 50 feet wide.

Amadou Gallo Fall’s brother, Mamadou, had sent him his first basketball while studying in France. Now, it was in Senegal, ready to be bounced by an enthusiastic youngster eager to finally put his new equipment to good use.

But Amadou doesn’t get to practice for long. Soon, he’s kicked off the floor by the school’s head groundskeeper. Off-days, apparently, still mean off-limits.

“I had the ball,” Amadou tells CloseUp360. “I just didn’t have the court.”

Times were different then.

The infrastructure simply wasn’t there, in a country like Senegal and on a continent like Africa, where soccer was, far and away, the No.1 sport. Even the rare courts that did exist weren’t available to just anyone.

Yet, it was basketball that changed Amadou’s life, and has become his life’s work ever since.

He didn’t pick up the game until he was 17. But after being spotted in a pickup game in Tunisia by a Peace Corps volunteer named Kevin Lineberger in the 1990s, the 6’8” “Gallo” received a scholarship offer, sight unseen, to the University of the District of Columbia, a historically black college with an NCAA Division II basketball program.

A successful college career at UDC followed, both academically and athletically. Amadou graduated magna cum laude from UDC in 1997, with a bachelor of science degree in biology, while playing center on the Firebirds’ basketball team.

In 1989, amid a season in which he averaged 12 points and seven rebounds per game, Amadou blocked Dikembe Mutombo during a game between UDC and Georgetown. He was the team’s second-leading scorer in 1990, but suffered a broken hand as a senior that derailed his dreams of playing in the NBA.

Amadou was inducted into the school’s Athletics Hall of Fame on February 15, 2019, and not just for what he did on the court at UDC. His honor was also a testament to what he’s accomplished since graduation—namely, laying the foundation for basketball in Africa that has helped the likes of Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam go from teenage beginners to NBA All-Stars.

Amadou, though, was unable attend the ceremony. The very next day, he was in Charlotte for the NBA All-Star 2019 Africa Luncheon, where the league and FIBA, international basketball’s governing body, announced the impending launch of the Basketball Africa League (BAL).

The stage was set for bigger things to come.

Brooklyn NY -December 4: Basketball Africa League Combine at the Brooklyn Nets HSS Training Center on December 4, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Amadou Gallo Fall has been instrumental to basketball's growth in Africa over the last decade. (Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

It’s the afternoon of December 4, and the Hospital for Special Surgery Training Center in Brooklyn is packed with players, scouts and executives. The first combine for the BAL—which will begin play in March 2020 with 12 teams—is in full swing.

Five-on-five games take place throughout the day in the massive gym, which features a skyline view of downtown Manhattan. Former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo leads the camp, with former NBA players Jordan Adams, Rodney Carney, Yakhouba Diawara, Tim Quarterman and Chris Smith among those trying out.

Yet, Amadou seems like the star of the show. He’s chatting and exchanging handshakes with seemingly everyone in the building. During an afternoon interview with CloseUp360, Amadou fields a huge from Luol Deng, a two-time NBA All-Star and native of South Sudan.

Back in late May, Amadou was named president of the BAL. His previous experience as an executive and philanthropist—primarily spent spreading the game of basketball across the African continent—made his selection a layup for the league’s higher-ups.

“Amadou’s efforts to grow basketball and the NBA’s business across Africa have been extraordinary, and he is an ideal choice to lead the Basketball Africa League,” Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner and chief operating officer, said in a statement at the time. “This historic initiative will not only further enhance the game in Africa, but also provide new opportunities in media, technology and infrastructure on the continent.”

Day to day, Amadou’s work as the head of the BAL includes everything from leading partner acquisitions and negotiating across marketing partnerships to overseeing broadcast rights and merchandising. He’s constantly engaging with basketball’s biggest stakeholders, including the BAL’s prospective clubs, basketball federations in various countries, FIBA and, of course, the NBA, working closely with commissioner Adam Silver and his chief deputy Mark Tatum.

On top of all that, Amadou is involved in preparations for the BAL’s launch in March. There are teams to lock in, rosters to fill, host venues to monitor, a schedule to sort out and more partnerships to secure.

Though he’s operating at a higher echelon than ever before, Amadou’s mission remains the same: using basketball as a conduit to empower and inspire young people throughout Africa to grow and find success.

“I want to build an industry on the continent that is going to flourish and self-sustain, and create jobs not only for the players on the court, but also for administrators and those looking to work in a professional sports organization,” he says.

“We’re not saying we want to be a feeder program for the NBA, though if that happens, it’s great because we have so much talent. And the best of the best are always going to want to play in the best league in the world. But for us, it’s about looking to develop the game on the continent, and having basketball that is world-class and meets the highest standards and is followed by fans across the world.”

Brooklyn NY -December 4: Basketball Africa League Combine at the Brooklyn Nets HSS Training Center on December 4, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Amadou (center) was named President of the Basketball Africa League in May 2019. (Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sure, it’s a job by definition.

It just doesn’t seem that way to Amadou.

“This never feels like work,” he says. “Because every day, you get to wake up with a chance to do something special, with a chance to make a difference.”

Growing up in Senegal, Amadou thought he wanted to make a difference as a doctor. He grew up as one of 10 children in a working-class family. His father, Osseynou, was a trader and farmer while his mother, Sokhna Dieng, stayed home to look after the kids. Though neither parent had a formal education, many of Amadou’s siblings pursued extensive schooling to become lawyers, linguists, civil engineers and university professors.

Amadou, too, wanted to help people, ideally through the Doctors Without Borders program. But the high costs of medical school caused him to contemplate other options.

He quickly made an impact while working with Senegal’s Ministry of Youth, Sports and Leisure, and the Senegalese Basketball Federation. He helped organize a training camp in the U.S. for the Senegalese national team that featured some of his home country’s top NCAA talent, including North Carolina’s Makhtar N’Diaye (who went on to play for the then-Vancouver Grizzlies) and Georgetown’s Boubacar Aw and Cheikh Ya-Ya Dia. Those three combined the core of a squad that won the FIBA Africa Championship (otherwise known as Afrobasket) in 1997 and, in turn, qualified for the 1998 FIBA World Championship in Greece.

Amadou’s father, who always believed in education over athletics, was soon giving his son high praise for his work. His father’s respect for sports had grown immensely.

“It was significant to him. It was significant to our country,” Amadou says. “Sports became cool.”

In 1998, Amadou was taking graduate school classes and working as a research assistant in a microbiology lab, with the goal of getting into medical school, when he founded the SEED Project. SEED, which stands for Sports for Education and Economic Development, is a non-profit organization that uses sport as a vehicle to inspire, empower and support the holistic development of promising African youth, preparing them to become global citizens. According to its official website, 92 percent of SEED students have either matriculated to college or found jobs. Minnesota Timberwolves big man Gorgui Dieng is one of SEED’s more than 2,000 alumni.

Amadou, then, ended up helping people after all, just in a different way than he initially expected. The program has been going strong for the last 21 years and counting.

Brooklyn NY -December 4: Basketball Africa League Combine at the Brooklyn Nets HSS Training Center on December 4, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Amadou founded the SEED Project in 1998, while taking graduate school classes and working as a research assistant. (Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 1998, Amadou’s career in basketball took him from West Africa to Texas.

He was at the Nike Hoop Summit in San Antonio with Seco Camara, another Senegalese player whom Amadou had helped out, when he met Donnie Nelson, the general manager of the Dallas Mavericks. Donnie was there coaching the World Select Team, which featured a giant German teenager with a soft shooting touch named Dirk Nowitzki.

As fixated as Donnie was on Dirk, he couldn’t help but take a liking to Amadou.

“It was love at first sight,” Donnie says. “Just with the way and the integrity by which he carried himself. He was clearly highly-educated, extremely passionate about the sport and providing educational opportunities to those less fortunate in Africa.”

The two struck up a connection and got to know each other over subsequent conversations. In time, Donnie became so impressed with Amadou’s knowledge of and love for the game—as well as his overall intellect and global humanitarian heart—that he offered the one-time aspiring doctor a job as a volunteer scout for the Mavs.

“He literally is a product of the goodwill, the incredible vehicle that is basketball, provided to a young impressionable player,” Donnie says of Amadou, “and it provided him with the opportunity to get an education. And the rest is history.”

Over the ensuing 12 years, Amadou worked in various capacities for the Mavs, advancing from an unpaid position to director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs. Along the way, he evaluated talent at the highest level while gaining valuable lessons from senior members of the front office.

“He allowed me to have a voice,” Amadou says of Donnie. “And my opinion really mattered.”

Within two years of Amadou joining the organization, the Mavericks became a powerhouse, though that turnaround had more to do with another pair of foreign-born arrivals that same summer. Dirk blossomed into an All-Star after Dallas acquired his rights during the 1998 NBA draft. So did a savvy Canadian point guard named Steve Nash, who came over in a trade with the Phoenix Suns on the very same day. Those two became the league’s standard bearers for international success.

Seven years after Steve returned to Phoenix, Dallas won the 2011 NBA title with Dirk leading the way. Though Amadou had moved on from the Mavs by then, he and the organization had already left indelible marks on one another.

“I was fortunate to be with an organization full of outside-the-box thinkers,” Amadou says.

Brooklyn NY -December 4: Basketball Africa League Combine at the Brooklyn Nets HSS Training Center on December 4, 2019 in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Amadou got his start in the NBA with the Dallas Mavericks in 1998. (Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images)

In 2010, Amadou left Dallas and moved closer to home to help the NBA open an office in Johannesburg, South Africa. In the decade since then, he has played a pivotal part in extending the NBA’s global reach while expanding basketball’s footprint on the other side of the Atlantic.

He’s overseen the growth of the NBA’s business and player development efforts on the African continent. And he’s continued to expand the league’s Basketball Without Borders program, which he helped found in 2003, to create pathways for Serge Ibaka, Luc Mbah a Moute, Joel, Pascal and others to go from Africa to the NBA.

“They’ll come back in the summer to camps and tell kids, ‘A few years ago, I was sitting right where you are now,’” Amadou says. “It becomes a lot more realistic where kids can actually dream about playing in the NBA, and it’s totally possible.”

The highlight of Amadou’s work on the continent: three sold-out NBA exhibition games in 2015, 2017 and 2018 in South Africa. Those games supported several charities, including UNICEF, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and SOS Children’s Villages South Africa.

In time, the NBA Academy Africa—which opened its own dedicated facility in Saly, Senegal, in 2018—could become the crown jewel of Amadou’s efforts, especially if some of the talented kids it helps to educate and train end up in the Association. So far, three of the academy’s graduates have earned basketball scholarships to NCAA Division I schools.

The BAL should only further Amadou’s life’s work of growing the game in Africa. Whether or not the league becomes a bona fide pipeline of talent to the NBA, it should serve as a platform for talented individuals to better themselves and inspire others closer to Amadou’s roots.

“From Day 1, our goal was to conceptualize and build a strategy for growing and popularizing basketball in Africa,” he says. “We were basically building a business from scratch, figuring out how to make the sport more relevant, organizing talent, providing a participation platform with clinics and giving our fans an opportunity to see live NBA basketball. Our momentum is growing.”

Amadou believes Toronto Raptors GM Masai Ujiri’s success as the architect of a title-winning team in Canada last season was huge for Africa as a whole. Masai hadn’t played a minute in the NBA, but still managed to have a significant impact on the sport.

Much like Amadou Gallo Fall himself.

“I think Gallo really is the perfect CEO,” Donnie says.

“The sky's the limit for Africa,” Amadou adds. “We couldn’t have dreamed this better.”

 

Mike Mazzeo is a veteran NBA writer based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.