DePaul commit Dramane Camara’s BAL success shows growth of hoops in Mali
KIGALI, Rwanda — The Basketball Africa League semi-final on May 24 between Al Ahly and Stade Malien will be a win-win for Malian basketball, regardless of the result.
If Ahly win, then one of Mali’s brightest prospects in Dramane Camara will play in the BAL final. If Stade Malien cause an upset, then their very own team from Bamako will have a shot at being the most unlikely African champions.
The country was inspired recently by Adama Sanogo’s key role in UConn’s Men’s Basketball NCAA tournament win. Furthermore, the women’s national team received a silver medal at AfroBasket 2021.
“I think that in Mali, you’ve got a lot of talent – a lot of players from Mali who are very, very good,” Camara, a 19-year-old shooting guard who recently committed to DePaul University, told ESPN.
“Adama Sanogo, who just won the NCAA tournament – I look up to him. I had the chance to talk to him a few years ago and he gave me some advice. It was very interesting to hear from someone who is not too old and not younger than me. Our age is similar… He gave me advice to play hard, to stay focused.”
Sanogo, 21, was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and is by and large the face of Mali’s basketball uprising, but he is by no means their only success story in recent years.
Camara is one of their most promising prospects, though in fairness, much of his basketball education was in France before he joined the NBA Africa Academy in Senegal two years ago. He missed last year’s BAL due to not yet having a Malian passport but was picked by Ahly in this year’s BAL Elevate Draft once that was sorted.
Camara’s ability was on full display in the Nile Conference in Cairo in April, where he was impactful off the Ahly bench even in a settled team, which finished second behind Petro de Luanda in the conference.
They then made light work of what was, on paper, a difficult quarter-final against REG in Kigali, winning 94-77 against the playoff hosts.
While Camara looks like he might be one of Mali’s next stars, he is far from the only proof at the BAL that basketball is taking off there.
Stade Malien were widely expected to be eliminated from March’s Sahara Conference in Dakar. However, led by Bamako’s Souleymane Berthé and Aliou Diarra, they stunned the African basketball world to progress in top spot.
They then beat the Cape Town Tigers 78-69 in the quarter-final to secure a showdown with the Egyptian giants.
Meanwhile, fellow Malian Bourama Sidibé (25), formerly of Syracuse, was influential for Mozambique’s Ferroviário da Beira with 10 points per game. However, they were eliminated by Senegal’s AS Douanes in the quarter-finals.
On the ground in Mali, basketball lovers with US experience are doing their best to grow the game.
Malians Ibrahim Famouke Doumbia and Moustapha Diaoune co-founded Meta Africa Sports last year, having met at Cal State Fullerton. Through Meta Africa, they have organised an U17 basketball tournament in Mali.
“We officially co-founded Meta Africa Sports in November 2022. A lot of things are missing in terms of the level of basketball. We have the raw talent, but no spotlight is being put on these kids that have a promising future,” said Diaoune.
“That’s why we created Meta Africa Sports – to bridge the information gap between these sporting leagues that exist – these international sporting leagues and these local talents.
“In Mali, we are starting to get more sports channels that are showing basketball, so I feel like it’s motivating the youth to be part of a growing sport in general. I feel like basketball now is reaching all these different areas – like, now we have the NBA Africa and the BAL, so all of it’s motivating the youth.”
The goal, ultimately, is for Meta Africa Sports’ tournament to grow into a youth league across different parts of Africa. Doumbia himself wants to play basketball professionally, having already represented Mali at the 2016 U18 AfroBasket in Rwanda.
Clutch steal and dunk seals the game for Stade Malien
Stade Malien book their place in the BAL final four with a 9-point win over the Cape Town Tigers.
With the game slowly but surely growing at home, the BAL semi-finals will give Mali a chance to show that their men’s game is keeping pace with the women.
For Camara, it will also afford another opportunity to end his journey on the continent as a champion. Realistically, the 19-year-old is one of the best-placed to do so and is one of the young Malian players of whom the most is expected in future.
Camara has NBA dreams and is seeking to emulate the Miami Heat’s Max Strus, who also attended DePaul. “Our games are similar, so how he is developing – I hope I can have the same development,” Camara said.
Soumaila Samake and Cheick Diallo are the two Malians to have played in the NBA up until this point, but early signs are there that a new generation might yield more players at the highest level sooner rather than later.
The BAL airs on ESPN in Africa. The semifinals are on May 24, between Petro de Luanda and AS Douanes, and Al Ahly and Stade Malien.