NATIVE Exclusive: Gbemisola Abudu wants to strengthen basketball & the NBA as a cultural force in Nigeria

Grassroots developments, access to high level basketball games and more lofty goals.

Gbemisola Abudu is beaming. Sitting in front of a custom background, she lets out a hearty chuckle at the mention of the 2023 NBA All-Star halftime, which featured a performance medley from Nigerian pop superstars Burna Boy, Tems and Rema. It’s the most visible of her several achievements since fully assuming her role as NBA Africa vice president and NBA Nigeria country head over the last year. Less than a week off a really busy weekend, and a hectic couple of weeks before, the qualifying word she uses for the experience is “exciting.”

“The truth is, when I accepted the job, being aware of what is required to build a brand in the first two years, I knew that it would be extremely tasking and demanding—that’s what happens when you’re building a brand,” she tells The NATIVE over a Zoom video call. In early 2022, when the National Basketball Association opened its third African office in Lagos, many basketball fans in Nigeria were immediately keen about the on-ground agenda from the most popular league and brand in global basketball. Also intriguing was Abudu, who became the youngest person and first woman of colour to serve as a country head.

Abudu’s path to her current role is the perfect merger of passion and experience. Her obsession with the game coincided with the rise of the late, great basketball immortal, Kobe Bryant, following him as he made the jump from high school to pro-athlete. Born and raised in California, Kobe becoming a Los Angeles Laker sealed her team of choice, but the deeper effect is that she fell in love with being around the game. Even as she interfaced with basketball—and sports in general—throughout college, even mulling a career path, Abudu’s post-college path includes stints at a law firm, a government, a well-known luxury brand and more, all contributing to her status as a marketing whiz.

Almost ten years in the making, Abudu’s appointment as NBA Nigeria country head came after two disappointing attempts to work for the NBA in the early to mid-2010s, partly due to the association’s then uncertainty about its expansion in Africa. Over the last few years, however, the NBA has made clear and concerted efforts to strengthen its presence, most notably through the establishment of the Basketball Africa League (BAL), its first league outside North America. The opening of the office in Victoria Island serves as tangible indication of the NBA’s readiness to engage the most populous country on the continent, where basketball’s popularity is widespread and only second to the ultra-ubiquity of football.

“There are different hindrances that have made basketball not to be where we foresee it to be, that’s why intentional investments are being made now,” Gbemisola Abudu explains. “From an infrastructural standpoint, you can play football anywhere but with basketball you need a ball that can bounce, you need a hoop and just the dedication to practise day in day out.” To her point about intentional investments, she mentions the efforts of people like Amadou Gallo Fall and Masai Ujiri. As the current BAL President and a long-time presence in NBA Africa, Gallo Fall’s efforts in strengthening basketball’s footprint on the continent is evident and exemplary. Ujiri, the President of Basketball Operations at NBA franchise, Toronto Raptors, and Founder of Giants of Africa, has taken a sustained shine to grassroots developments.


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In what she describes as a relay race, Gbemisola Abudu sees her role as a continuation of these efforts to make Nigeria’s basketball ecosystem even more robust. For Abudu, that means finding the middle ground that leverages the global standards of the NBA and culture drivers relatable to any and every Nigerian. In addition to identifying the right partners and team members for this brand mission, “it also involves making sure that we’re identifying how we want to connect with the market in Nigeria, knowing that Nigeria is a purveyor of culture and really determining what is the best way to position the NBA brand in Nigeria along those lines.”

As part of a partnership with Hennessy, the Court Beyond Series, which was designed to honour the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Season, in January 2022, NBA created the first floating basketball court in Africa off the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge along with the NBA Crossover event, which consisted of a celebrity game. The tone-setting event highlighted the glossier side of how the NBA wants to meet Nigeria through exciting, eye-catching happenings. In leaning into culture to increase the NBA’s footprint through curated moments, Abudu identifies music, film, fashion, art and tech as the five cultural pillars to be engaged with on a deeper level as time goes on.

Last November, in line with this intentional approach, to reach Nigerians through culture and as part of the NBA’s DNA of setting trends, NBA Nigeria launched the NBA meets Art event, which celebrates art through the lens of basketball. Present at that event was NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO Mark Tatum, along with several executives in the NBA brass. “We hosted the Deputy Commissioner and COO of the NBA, Mark Tatum, in Nigeria. During his visit, we put together activities focused on cultural immersion that showcased different elements of our culture and the opportunities our culture presents to the NBA. Several of our investors and other NBA executives were also in town. It was an incredible four days filled with great activities focused on art, music, and different aspects of life in Lagos. During one of my conversations with Mark, he asked how cool it would be to bring Afrobeat to the U.S. I got excited because I knew exactly what he meant. He explicitly stated that we should make it happen for the All-Star halftime show. Mark birthed the idea of Afrobeats at the All-Star game.” Abudu recalls.

That conversation, followed by months of work, culminated in the All-Star game halftime show. “If anyone told me at last year’s all-star festivities that a year from now we’re going to have an Afrobeats-themed halftime show—I believe anything is possible but I didn’t think it would have happened as soon as it did.” It’s that sense of possibility that Gbemisola Abudu is applying to the grittier aspects of the NBA Nigeria agenda. Her passion is even more palpable when she discusses basketball as a path for boys, girls and young adults, not only for those looking to become pro athletes, but also as a resource tool to teach indelible life skills.

One of Abudu’s medium-term goals is to have a “proper, defined junior NBA league that schools in all six geopolitical zones in Nigeria are being plugged into.” By extension, that means strengthening basketball in school curriculums, to ensure young people are learning and dedicated to the game from an early age. It also means infrastructural developments will be carried out around the country to make the game easily accessible to Nigerians any and everywhere. The long-term effect of this goal would be that it creates a veritable pathway to getting college scholarships, and then playing professionally in the NBA or the BAL.

“For me, that’s one of the refreshing things about the BAL,” Gbemisola Abudu says of young players getting to experience and play basketball at a high level on the continent. “It’s creating that opportunity so that you don’t necessarily have to leave the continent to become a successful basketball player and make a living. The BAL is enabling talents to stay on the continent and encouraging sports tourism in all the different countries, which ends up driving economic developments in the cities where we currently play.”

At the moment, the BAL is in the midst of its third season, having just concluded the Sahara Conference group games in Dakar, Senegal. For the second time in three years, Nigeria got a representative at the pan-African competition and this time, the Kwara Falcons bowed out with no win and a disappointing 0-5 record. In a way, it’s emblematic of the steps basketball in Nigeria must take to become a much stronger force on the continent, especially with regard to player development. It’s that evolution NBA Nigeria will be looking to help along through its grassroots-facing approach.


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From a logistics standpoint, Gbemisola Abudu would like Nigeria to host BAL games in the near future, “this means having a world-class facility where such games can happen.” For now, an immediate goal is to increase Nigerians’ engagement with the BAL by making games much more accessible. In the league’s first season, the best avenue for Nigerians to watch BAL games were mostly restricted to live streaming on its website. Now in its third season, viewers have more options, from watching on ESPN through satellite TV providers like DSTV and GoTV, or streaming online via the NBA app.

This same intentionality of improved access applies to NBA games, most of which are played at owl hours in Nigerian time due to time difference constraints. With an NBA ID and subscription to NBA League Pass, Nigerians can watch games live or catch up at their convenience. With weekend games, some of them primetime games, played at much earlier times to accommodate a broader international audience outside North America, Nigerian basketball fans can also watch games in real-time through satellite TV channels.

“[We want to make sure] everybody knows where to watch NBA and BAL games, and it’s easily accessible too,” Abudu reiterates. “Similar to how people banter back-and-forth about football, basketball and the NBA have to become part of those conversation.” It’s a lofty aspiration, considering the ultra-ubiquity of football bantering in Nigerian youth culture, but those are worthwhile heights of popularity to reach for. As a basketball fan myself, it’s no hyperbole that NBA and BAL games are at their most accessible in Nigeria. When I mention my daily habit of extensively checking in on happenings in the NBA via the NBA app, and even watching owl hour games, there’s an obvious joy in Gbemisola Abudu’s smile.

“Those are the kind of things I want to hear even more of,” she says. “Another goal would be that our fan base grows by 200% minimum [in three years], that people love basketball, people are talking about basketball, and people are engaging with the NBA continuously.”