NATIVE Exclusive: In Conversation With Dennis Osadebe & Gbemisola Abudu About NBA Meets Art

"[Dennis] understands basketball and really understands the DNA of the brand."

In the 70-year long history of the National Basketball Association (NBA), the sport has grown beyond an on-the-court product and transcended across a range of industries spanning art, music, fashion, and more. Basketball is no longer a sport to be enjoyed solely on the court among nine players, but now a huge phenomenon that intersects with popular culture today. This wholesale exchange between sports and culture is due in large part to the several strategic partnerships and collaborations that have been forged across the years by the NBA and its players.

In Africa, the NBA is making similar strides and reaching into the creative ecosystem. Since its entry into the Nigerian market in 2022, the NBA has made clear and concerted efforts to strengthen its presence in Africa,Its most notable milestone before this is the establishment of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in 2021, its first league outside North America. Also, to honour the NBA’s 75th anniversary season, the first floating basketball court in Africa was created off the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge along with the NBA Crossover event, which consisted of a celebrity game.

This collaborative spirit lays at the centre of the NBA’s mission in Africa, which has been forged so far through team work and community building. Last year, the NBA hosted the first edition of its NBA Meets Art installation, a stunning photography exhibition connecting various key players in the art and sport world. This year, for its second installation, NBA Africa brought together key industry players and leaders to enjoy a curated celebration of the game of basketball through the lens of Nigerian artist, Dennis Osadebe.


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The latest installation titled ‘Passing/Building/Victory,’ is the brainchild of Osadebe and explores the key role of teamwork and how similar collaboration can help develop communities, aligning with the NBA’s own mission to inspire and connect people everywhere through basketball. The installation consists of five figurines representing basketball players wearing the artist’s distinctive mask, a recurring symbol in his visual work that speaks to Nigeria’s heritage.

“When we had our initial conversation with Dennis, we said we want work that represents what the NBA stands for: teamwork. You can’t win a championship on your own. We also wanted something that promotes Nigerian excellence. Everything we said, he interpreted in a way that shows a really strong and powerful message,” shares Gbemisola Abudu, the NBA Africa Vice-President and the Country Head of NBA Nigeria. The unique figurines which were launched at the Art X Lagos week last month in Lagos, draw on inspiration from Osadebe’s childhood. 

“What was most important to me was to creatively embody what basketball offers, which is teamwork and how that relates to community development,” Osadebe admits. As such, the installation touches on universal themes of the enjoyment of play in our formative years. The figurines are set in dynamic motion, symbolically passing the ball through their unified, outstretched arms to enscapusulate the shared spirit of camaraderie and victory.

NBA Meets Art beautifully merged the worlds of basketball and art, showcasing the power of cross-industry collaboration and the NBA’s mission to reach and extend themselves far beyond the game.

Our conversation, which follows below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

NATIVE: For Gbemisola, why is it important for the NBA to make great strides within the creative industries?  

Gbemisola: In Africa, NBA’s objective is to be the number one lifestyle brands in Africa and it’s in how we find ways to make the brand culturally relevant in Nigeria. When we opened our first office in February 2022, I spent the first several months really looking at the market through the lens of the NBA, trying to determine the best way to connect with existing fans. In the past several years, Nigeria has been the purveyor of culture in Africa. Being a marketer by training, it meant taking a step back and figuring out how to create something that tells an effective story. That’s where the idea of NBA Meets Culture came from.

We started out with NBA Meets Art in November 2022, where we had the Deputy Commissioner of the NBA present. The first edition featured a dinner and a photographic exhibition. For the second edition, we kept thinking, “how do you take this to the next level?” The idea was to have five pillars of culture: art, fashion, film, music, and tech; and embed our brand and the cultural relevance of our brand to those five pillars.

NATIVE: What informed the theme of “Passing/Building/Victory” and how did you land on a Nigerian artist for this edition?  

Gbemisola: The theme was the genius of Dennis. For the second edition of NBA Meets Art, we wanted to take it a step further by actually working with an artist. We commissioned the artist and they decided how they would interpret the vision of NBA Nigeria. In multiple conversations, Dennis’s name kept coming up. I was at his first exhibition at the Red Door gallery, so when his name kept coming up, I remembered him. When we had our initial conversation with him, we said we want work that represents what the NBA stands for: teamwork. You can’t win a championship on your own. We also wanted something that promotes Nigerian excellence. Everything we said, he interpreted in a way that shows a really strong and powerful message.  

Dennis: Thank you so much for that intro. What was most important to me was to creatively embody what basketball offers, which is teamwork and how that relates to community development. I was trying to find that connection and put it in the work that I created. Traditional sports figurines are a staple for me. I wanted to create something around that space. When we started the conversation, I didn’t want to create a figurine that would dunk or make a point. I wanted to reinterpret what a figurine could do. We started thinking in that direction.  


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Dennis, before coming on board this project, how would you describe your relationship with basketball or sports in general?  

Dennis: There’s no one particular intro into basketball, but two things I vividly remember were my love for sporting games from NBA2k to NBA Street, and I remember that my older brother was into basketball and he was someone I looked up to. There’ve been different ways the NBA has allowed me to engage in the sport outside of the sport itself like through fashion.  

What were your initial thoughts on this collaboration? 

Dennis: I had to keep in mind all of the NBA’s goals but also find that synergy between their vision and my work. It was important to find that thread to present an idea that is relevant to our community as a whole. That potential is something that really excited me. Outside of that it was all about the momentum and the NBA team aligning with the idea was enough to keep me going.

Gbemisola: I think it’s worth adding that during the selection process, it’s one thing when an artist’s name keeps coming up, but it’s another when the artist has a natural affinity for the game, which is one of the reasons why I believe Dennis was able to distil the vision in the way he did. He understands basketball and really understands the DNA of the brand.  

NATIVE: From the ideation stage to the final exhibition, how well would you say your visions were executed? 

Dennis: 100 percent executed. I would say the support, belief and patience allowed for the idea to grow within itself.

Gbemisola: This process with Dennis had obstacles and challenges but everything actually made the work more powerful in the end. I think the initial display, the idea of that process is reflected in it. Whereas in the initial conversation, that wasn’t part of the discussion but it gave it a more powerful story in the end. We didn’t anticipate all the challenges the process would bring our way but honestly it was great. By the time the installation went up at Art X, I would say it was a great piece. It really captured the essence of the NBA and the DNA of who we are. At the end of the day that’s what you want, work that creates a dialogue and an interaction between the artist and the audience.  

Dennis: The final piece was a true testament of the title because we all had to work together to make it happen.


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A post shared by Gbemisola A Abudu 🇳🇬🇺🇸 (@gbemiabudu)

NATIVE: The installation features five masked figures holding basketballs in Dennis’ signature style. What does this represent?

Dennis: I’d say the mask is a symbol of identity and heritage which reflects the rich cultural history of Nigeria. It was, of course, important to have that symbolism as it creates a reminder of who we are and what we hold. To take it further, it was also important to celebrate Nigeria’s history and achievements in the NBA. We really wanted to show our participation in the sport. It was about who are the players in the sports and their contributions, from winning the highest titles to even being a team player who was on the bench. It was a true testament to celebrating each year with every number we picked. What was important was being creative about the number and working on a very abstract level where we celebrate our history and celebrate it creatively.  

What do you each hope people took away from the exhibition? 

Dennis: As an artist, it’s always hard to determine what people will take away. What’s most important is that they feel a sense of joy and a sense of responsibility to work together. Most importantly, I hope they create a dialogue between themselves. Once there’s a conversation, I think the work is complete. It can be an internal dialogue with yourself, your partner or your enemy. As long as it exists, the work is complete.

Gbemisola: In addition to that, I hope people understand that it takes teamwork to build anything, whether it’s a project or community, it’s about everybody coming together and applying what their strengths are. Also as a brand, it’s letting people understand our relevance in the art space. Here in Nigeria and in Africa, what I hope for is for people to understand how the NBA is committed to the growth of basketball.  

Art X Lagos is a special platform that prioritises making art accessible to everyone. Considering NBA Africa champions community building, why was it important to have the exhibition and interactive session there? 

Gbemisola: It’s one of the reasons why I’m a huge fan of Art X. For the longest time when people think about art, it’s almost like art is for the few. It’s not accessible to everyone. In a country like Nigeria, we don’t have a lot of museums like other people do. What Art X has done is that democratisation of art, making it accessible to the average person. The NBA is that as well. This is a game and this is a brand for everybody. Being able to showcase this installation in place accessible to everybody, we couldn’t have selected a better platform for the work to be showcased.

Other than community-building, there was an overarching theme of youth culture and involvement as a whole. Why was it important to keep young people in the picture for this edition?  

Gbemisola: I think for everything we do in Nigeria, Africa and as a whole, a big part of our target audience is the youth. If you look at Nigeria, 60% of the population are young people. The New York Times published an article where it talks about how the world is becoming more African because the rest of the world is ageing and we’re not because we have a youthful demographic. For any business, it’s an important demographic but especially for us. If you look at our players, most of them fall into that category.

As we continue to build the brand here and increase the footprint of basketball in Nigeria, we’re looking at how to create a defined path from the moment a child picks up a basketball for the first time to the time to where they can play professionally. If you look at it that way, it’s the youth that we’re speaking to. Our strategy is built around that and to take it a step further, the way we define basketball in Nigeria is the tool that the youth use to maximise their potential. 


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NATIVE: Collaborative projects may come with some challenges regarding creative liberty or even difference in ideas. How were you able to overcome those and arrive at what we had at the exhibition? 

Dennis: I always say that, for me, collaborative projects are like a residency because you go into the universe of a brand and you learn about structure. I felt free to execute. Having their input is always important to me because I find collaborations to not just be about the artist or the collaborators. It’s about the team and how we all put our hands together to ensure that the idea which is the most important thing is executed. Once there’s that structure, I just work within it and enjoy the process as much as I can.

Gbemisola: Collaborations work when both parties know their strengths. Both parties understand what they bring to the table and they give each other the freedom and liberty to do that. One thing I’d always say is whenever you’re working with an artist, whether it’s a musician or filmmaker, you don’t want to take away that creativity because you rob them of the ability to do their best work. To his point, for a brand like the NBA we had parameters we needed to work within but he understood those quite well. When you’re doing anything, you have curve balls that come your way. But being able to rise above that and present a great work, it’s a testament to what we created.

Where would you say you see the relationship between art and basketball and  the pillars you mentioned in the future and how do you think our creatives can be more involved in that? 

Gbemisola: We’ve not even scratched the surface. I think there are so many opportunities and so much potential. We’ve created a template for how we interact with the creative industry, particularly with art. I’m very curious and quite excited for the life of this particular installation because it’s beyond Art X. The goal is for us to do it with the other pillars we’ve identified. I’d say watch this space without giving away too much, but we intend to replicate what we’ve done with Dennis and the learning from that, I think that will further define how we work with the other pillars.

Featured Image Credits/NBAAfrica