Meet Gbemi Abudu: The Basketball Ace Leading the Expansion of the NBA in Nigeria
In 2022, NBA set up shop in Nigeria and the captain brought in to steer the ship was American-born, Nigerian entrepreneur and philanthropist Gbemisola Abudu.
●8th March 2023
As is common with mostNBA All-Star Weekends, the major headlines are made by the players, the main stars of the weekend — regardless of the deluge of celebrities that fly in just to be courtside — and 2019 wasn’t any different. Team Giannis set an All-Star record with 23 field goals in the first quarter, topping the mark of 22 set on four previous occasions. Giannis — who was a first-time team captain at the All-Star games — scored the most points with 38, just ahead of other famous players like Kevin Durant and LeBron James. There was also that impressive reverse dunkfrom Steph Curry in the game’s dying seconds.
Arguably, the most exciting news of that weekend was made by Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, who announced that the NBA, in conjunction with FIBA, was launching a professional basketball league in Africa called the Basketball Africa League (BAL), which would be spearheaded by Amadou Gallo-Fall, who is regarded as the Godfather of basketball in Africa. “We believe that basketball can become a top sport across Africa over the next decade, and I look forward to working closely with our investors to make that goal a reality,” Silver explained in a statement. In a bid to push the sports and the brand effectively across Africa, Victor Williams, an accomplished investment banking executive with a wealth of experience in business growth was brought in as CEO of NBA Africa. Several months later, the NBA set up shop on the shores of the continent’s most populous country, Nigeria, and the captain brought in to steer the ship is American-born, Nigerian entrepreneur and philanthropist, Gbemisola Abudu.
Born in California, Gbemisola Abudu’s love for basketball began in the spring of ‘96 when she watched the late Kobe Bryant play at the McDonald’s All-American Boys Game. “I remember the moment I fell in love with basketball. My brother was watching the McDonald’s All-American game and I decided to watch it with him. While watching the game, I was drawn to a particular player’s dynamism. The late Kobe Bryant was magnetic and mesmerizing to watch. The moment he was drafted to the NBA in ‘96 by the Charlotte Hornets and traded immediately to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Lakers became my team and I have followed them religiously since 1996.” she tells me reminiscently one night in late February.
While her love for the game was ignited in California by Kobe Bryant, it was in Wyoming, while in college, that it would be truly nurtured. There, she built relationships with several athletes, some of whom played on the university basketball team, and watched them play regularly. These relationships are what gave her the opportunity to get plugged into the broader basketball community in the US. It was during that period she met the likes of Masai Ujiri, the current President and Vice Chairman of the Toronto Raptors, Obinna Ekezie, a former professional basketball player who played for the LA Clippers in the early 2000s, and others who were already making a mark in basketball. While many might have leveraged these relationships into securing respectable roles in the basketball industry, speaking to Abudu, there’s a sense that she’s a firm believer in the spiritual ordinance. So, instead, she built a résumé outside of basketball, one that reads impressively: she worked for one of the top law firms in the world in Washington, DC, had the opportunity to model for Nike in one of their National running campaigns (a serendipitous moment that came about due to her love for running), attended graduate school at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona, interned at Clorox where she focused on marketing intelligence, did some consulting work with the Jordanian government on attracting high-value FDI for nation building, then eventually transitioned into the luxury industry, joining Louis Vuitton where she was part of the team that opened the current largest Louis Vuitton store in North America.
After her father passed in 2011, her desire to move back to Nigeria intensified. In 2014, she moved to Nigeria where she continued to work in the luxury industry and later the Business Aviation industry, before delving into edutech and philanthropy where she created the BMGA Fellows Program, a social impact initiative designed to narrow the gender skills gap that exists among female university graduates in Africa and Asia. “The idea of BMGA was to focus on soft skills. In my career, it became apparent to me that [being] book smart wasn’t what sets an individual apart – that’s standard and expected. I realized that there are crucial foundational skills that are important to people’s success: communication skills, critical thinking, team coordination, leadership skills, etc. That’s why I started the BMGA Fellows Program. I wanted to create a program that would serve as a springboard to prepare young women for success in the 21st century and give them access to some of the best resources and institutions I had the privilege of being exposed to while building my career.” Abudu expands on the goal of the BMGA Foundation.
While she was keen on her brainchild, passionate about equipping the next generation of young women with the same skills she believes she’s been lucky to acquire in her distinguished career, the NBA came calling. “To be honest, my journey with the NBA began years ago. I wanted to work for the NBA in 2013. I had great conversations, but at that point, the NBA wasn’t looking to expand to Nigeria. Then in 2014, I went through the same process again, and nothing came out of it. So, in 2021, when I heard that the NBA was coming to Nigeria, I wasn’t intrigued initially because I was content with BMGA, and I felt it would be the same thing as the previous times. To cut the long story short, I believe God has a way of letting you know when He wants you to venture into something. He has a way of communicating His purpose and assignments for our lives. He let me know the NBA was the next step for me.” she tells me, confirming that this time, everything was in alignment.
After the interview process which lasted for several months, Abudu was appointed NBA Africa Vice President and the Country Head of NBA Nigeria in January 2022. Since then, she’s relished the challenge of helping the proliferation of the NBA in Nigeria, smartly implementing what she refers to as “foundational blocks”: building a good team, understanding the fanbase, identifying and establishing relationships with the right agencies and partners, and developing relationships with basketball stakeholders in Nigeria. Abudu’s most impressive feat since joining the NBA, however, was playing a key role in facilitating the Afrobeats-themed Halftime Show which saw Tems, Remaand Burna Boy put on impressive performances at the recently concluded All-Star weekend.
Speaking on how the historic night came to be, Abudu explains: “The vision for the halftime show was birthed during the weekend of the NBA meets Art in November 2022. 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. It is worth stating that Mark is a fan of Afrobeat. At that time, I didn’t realise that he made calls while he was still in Lagos to discuss the possibility of Afrobeat being featured in the halftime show. All I know was when he got back to New York, I got an email from him with the NBA Entertainment team in copy (who oversees the halftime show). His emails said that I should work with the team to determine what an Afrobeat-themed halftime show would look like. Tatum set the ball rolling for the Afrobeats-themed Halftime show, with Abudu becoming the fulcrum and utilizing her wealth of experience and connections to bring it all together.
“Like I have mentioned numerous times, it really took a village for us to pull this off. I want to take the opportunity to acknowledge and thank some people. First, major kudos to the Deputy Commissioner of the NBA, Mark Tatum for the vision and for trusting me. To my colleagues in South Africa, Victor Williams, the CEO of NBA Africa, and George Land, for ensuring that we got things over the line. To the NBA Entertainment team for their commitment to delivering an experience that represented our work in NBA Africa, and I thank them for all their work. Then, my war buddies, the incredible production team that consisted of Rudy Crew, CharlieRosenzweig, and Amanda Black. We worked closely and tirelessly together for months to birth this vision. The incredible Tunde Folawiyo. I called on him several times during the journey for his assistance and he always picked up my call and ensured whatever issue I had was resolved. Finally, the remarkable musicians and their management team for putting on an incredible show. Seeing it all come together on Sunday was truly incredible!.” she tells me, pointing out the other key persons who helped in achieving this historic feat.
Now, more than ever, Abudu is focused on bridging the gap between Nigeria — and Africa as a whole — and the NBA. Whether it’s by facilitating cross-culture events like the impressive halftime show, which drags the spotlight on Nigeria and the continent at large or trying to ensure that there’s a significant improvement in the infrastructure made available for basketball players and enthusiasts, Abudu continues to remain a vital figure and purveyor of the game. “I can see the BAL playing games in Nigeria once we have world-class facilities. I see the NBA taking center stage in all elements of culture like it is in the US. As we focus on creating a properly defined pathway for young boys and girls to play basketball at the elite level while working closely with all stakeholders, I believe not only are we going to create great opportunities for talent in Nigeria, but we will also facilitate sports tourism, a basketball economy, and create a spark that will ignite the sports industry as a whole. Honestly, the sky is the limit for us.”
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