The NBA, in collaboration with Symbion Power, hosted the final of the second Jr. NBA season at JMK Park in Dar es Salaam last Saturday. Guests of honor were Mr Nicholaus William, deputy permanent secretary, Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports and Dr Yusuf Singo, director of sports development in Tanzania. The event also featured two-time NBA champion with the Los Angeles Lakers Didier ‘DJ’ Mbenga, NBA vice president and managing director Amadou Gallo Fall and Tanzanian artist Jokate Mwegelo. Mbenga, one of only two Africans to have won two NBA titles, was in Tanzania to inspire the youngsters who were taking their first steps in the global game, and to show his support for the program, that was launched in 2016. The 2017 Finals was the second edition.
The Jr. NBA League is the NBA’s global youth basketball participation program for boys and girls, teaching fundamental skills as well as the core values of the game at grassroots level in an effort to help grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents.
And just like the NBA itself, the 30 teams registered in the Jr. NBA League are divided into two conferences and six divisions. The top-eight teams from each conference qualify for the playoffs in October. The top-two teams from each conference then meet in the league championship game to determine the Jr. NBA League champions.
The Jr. NBA League for boys was launched in 2016, while the girls league tipped off in February 2017. So, unlike last year when only one Finals game was played, this year’s event featured finals in both the boys and girls category. And Mbenga was there to witness both. The 2017 Jr. NBA Girls League Champions were Juhudi (Los Angeles Lakers) who defeated Leadbaden (Orlando Magic), with the 2017 Jr. NBA Boys League Champions-crowned Aga Khan (Brooklyn Nets) beating St Augustine (Sacramento Kings) in the final games. Mbenga later expressed his joy at the program because of the advantages it will give the participants:
“[The program] will have a good impact for the kids because they are learning some amount of skills which is good for them for the future. It also makes them understand the game [early on], which is good for them.
“This is an opportunity a lot of people do not have, or I [did] not have when I was growing up. That is why it is very important for me to be there and to teach them and to work with them.”
Mbenga, a champion in the Basketball League Belgium with Spirou Charleroi in 2004 before joining the NBA where a bad injury run restricted him to a role player, also revealed how he managed to stay long enough in the league to earn two Championship rings despite this.
“The most important thing is to be ready, to understand your role why they need you in the team. If they sign you, it’s for a reason, and if you play in a better team with a player like Kobe Bryant you got to be ready, because your time and your opportunity is always going to come and when it comes, you have to do your job.”
In November 2009, the Lakers’ starting forward, Pau Gasol, and starting center, Andrew Bynum, were both injured and Mbenga got a starting role. He starred in a 114-98 win over the Memphis Grizzlies, and in his second start two days later, Mbenga recorded 10 points and 12 rebounds – his first career double-double in the NBA – and added four blocked shots as the Lakers defeated the New Orleans Hornets, 104-88. He was ready, and insists that is the only way to go:
“It is most important to be ready, because when they call you and you show up, you just got to do what you have to do … because that’s a part of your job.” That readiness to deliver made him attractive to the best team in the league at the time, and earned him two Championships.
The Jr. NBA program reached 18-million young people across 53 countries during the 2016/17 NBA season and is expected to keep growing, reaching many young players across the globe.
By Akinbode Oguntuyi
@booday10 on Twitter
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