Egypt’s Zamalek became the first-ever champions of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) after beating Tunisian outfit US Monastir 76-63 in the final at Kigali Arena in Rwanda.
It was the Egyptian team’s second continental trophy, having won the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Africa Champions Cup in 1992.
BAL is Africa’s premier men’s basketball league. The league consists of 12 teams, each qualifying through their domestic competitions, similar to the format of the UEFA Champions League. It was founded in February 2019 and its first season was 2021.
Walter Hodge, who joined Zamalek from US Monastir, was named the 2021 BAL Hakeem Olajuwon MVP award. Hodge, a two-time NCAA champion out of the University of Florida, recorded 12 points and four assists.
For the first time in the BAL, the Tunisian champions found themselves trailing at halftime (44-42).
“The problem of US Monastir was that throughout the tournament they never faced a team like ours,” Hodge said in the post-game press conference. “When I joined Zamalek, some of my US Monastir teammates were saying that Zamalek wasn’t a good team and I should just stay in Monastir. It’s been quite a journey,” said Hodge who averaged 13.7 points per game.
US Monastir reached the championship game after victories over GNBC (Madagascar), Rivers Hoopers (Nigeria) and Patriots BBC (Rwanda) in the group stages and a semi-finals win over AS Douanes (Senegal).
US Monastir’s Wael Arakji, who started for the first time in the tournament, tallied 11 points in the first half. Eventually, the international player from Lebanon finished with 13 points. Marcus Crawford added 14 points and Makrem Ben Romdhane contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds – his third BAL double-double.
At some point in the opening quarter, US Monastir led by as many as 10 points, but Zamalek’s combative spirit and deep rotation brought them back to the contest.
Mohab Yasser Abdel-Latif, the youngest player in this year’s BAL, exemplified Zamalek’s tenacity, on both ends of the floor.
The 18-year-old, who is due to graduate from the NBA Africa academy in Dakar, finished with 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Zamalek’s remarkable win was sparked by their contributions off the bench by Souleyman Diabate, Michael Fakuade and Chinemelu Elonu who combined for 40 points. Zamalek opened a 15-point lead with eight minutes to play and never looked back.
Diabate, one of Africa’s finest point guards, sank three of his six three-point attempts to finish with 14 points alongside his game-high six assists.
“I take full responsibility for this loss, and I want to apologise to our fans back home,” said US Monastir head coach Mounir Ben Slimen.
“Zamalek was the better team and deserved the title.”
The Egyptian Olympic Committee congratulated Zamalek for the victory. “You were able to lift Egypt’s name and you were up to the challenge, winning all your matches. You deserve all the respect and appreciation for your efforts.”
Hussein Labib, Zamalek’s newly appointed head of the committee running Zamalek club, congratulated the team as soon as they won the cup and promised the players a substantial bonus.
“We studied our opponents well since we were in Cairo months before the competition and we were able to win all our matches due to the fighting spirit of the whole team,” Zamalek coach Samir Gouda said. “It was not an easy competition and our defensive line was not good all the time but we managed to overcome our drawbacks and win the title for the first time ever. We hope to be able to keep it going in the coming years,” added Gouda, Zamalek’s former legendary player and winner of the African title in 1992.
In other Zamalek news, a ban imposed by the Egyptian Olympic Committee (EOC) on former Zamalek president Mortada Mansour has been lifted by the Egyptian Administrative Court.
The EOC had handed Mansour a four-year ban from all domestic sports- related activities in addition to a fine.
The decision was taken after it had received several complaints from sports institutions concerning Mansour repeatedly using abusive language and threats against organisations and sports officials.
Mansour and the former board of Zamalek were also suspended by the Ministry of Sports earlier this year after reported financial breaches and were referred to the public prosecution, with the investigations still ongoing.
Mansour, a law consultant, immediately filed an appeal to the Egyptian Administrative Court after claiming the decision violated his constitutional rights.
After having previously denied his appeal, the administrative court announced on Sunday that it had accepted Mansour’s appeal and that the ban should be removed immediately.
Mansour announced his intentions to run for the club’s presidential elections which will be held in four months.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly