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Dikembe Mutombo on the NBA doubling down on Africa: ‘They have the potential to grow anything’

Dikembe Mutombo put the Democratic Republic of Congo on the basketball map, when he was first drafted by the Denver Nuggets nearly 30 years ago.

Now, he’s betting big on Africa’s basketball potential as a key investor in NBA Africa, a new entity overseeing the league’s business on the continent.

Speaking to Yahoo Finance Live, the Hall of Famer singled out Africa as a critical growth market for the league, given its demographics. More than 60% of the population is under the age of 25, making it the youngest population in the world.

“This is a dream come true,” Mutombo said. “More than 800 million people living on the continent are under the age of 24 years old. So, we have a chance to grow this game before [the population] reaches 2 billion people.”

The NBA has been expanding its presence in Africa since it first opened an office in Johannesburg 11 years ago. The league has since hosted a handful of exhibition games and established the NBA Academy in Senegal to develop home grown talent. Last month, it launched the 12-team Basketball Africa League (BAL) in partnership with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA),

But the establishment of NBA Africa marks the league’s biggest bet to date, to aggressively build out its global brand on a continent that has historically viewed soccer as the sport of choice. At a virtual news conference to announce the new entity, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the launch was part of the league’s ambition to make basketball the top sport in Africa, over the next decade.

“What we wanted to do was to continue to build on the foundation that we've laid over the last 10 years, to expand the activities of the NBA on the continent, including grassroots basketball elite challenge development, getting closer to our fans, being a catalyst for economic growth and social development, and starting the basketball Africa league,” said NBA Africa CEO Victor Williams.

Silver said NBA Africa is already valued at “nearly $1 billion.”

In addition to Mutombo, the league has partnered with big name investors to establish NBA Africa, attracting funding from former players Luol Deng, Grant Hill, and Joakim Noah, as well as a consortium led by Babatunde “Tunde” Folawiyo, chairman and CEO of Yinka Folawiyo Group.

The NBA has moved aggressively to expand its global footprint under Silver, opening basketball academies in India, Australia, and China, in addition to Africa, to develop home grown talent. NBA China alone has grown to an over $5 billion business under Silver, though its business relationships remain strained, since then Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet, supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in 2019.

Those efforts have contributed to the internationalization of the league. The NBA’s current roster features 107 players from 41 countries. Fifty-five players in the NBA, are either from Africa or have family ties there.

As a global ambassador for the NBA, Mutombo has played a critical role in building the league’s brand around the world. But the launch of NBA Africa is more personal, given his connections to the continent, he said.

He’s hopeful the new entity will encourage more investors to bet on the future of Africa.

“I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Mutombo said. “The best place for [investors] to come [invest in] is the continent of Africa. But that goal will not happen, if we African people do not invest in ourselves. What we have to do, is to build more arenas, build more facilities where our young people can go, and develop and become a great basketball player. We cannot sit and wait for the NBA, to come do everything.”

Akiko Fujita is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @AkikoFujita