NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum thrilled by rapid growth of BAL

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DAKAR, SENEGAL -- NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum is a familiar face at Basketball Africa League games, and is delighted by the growth of the league, which is a partnership between the NBA and FIBA, in just three years.

Speaking to ESPN at the BAL's Sahara Conference in Senegal this week, Tatum said that the league, which started in 2021 after a COVID-19 delay, is becoming a magnet for young talent, whereas the first year featured journeyman veterans.

He said: "The thing I think about [is] the amount of talent in our league. Just in this Sahara Conference [in Dakar with six of the 12 BAL teams], we have 18 NCAA Division I college players, eight players with G-League experience.

"We also look at the quality of the competition and we've had several players from the BAL go on to play in college basketball - some in the G-League are playing professional basketball, so the amount of talent is growing.

"We also think about the teams that are competing in this league. We have six returning teams but then five new teams who have never played in the BAL before. These are local clubs who are invested locally in their club because they want to compete in the BAL. All those things are signs of growth in the BAL and how we measure success."

READ: Everything you need to know about the 2023 BAL

The business objectives are on their way to being met too, he added: "Last year, we had some 600 million social media engagements of the BAL. We're seeing that growth.

"Then, we had 50,000 fans buy tickets and attend BAL games last year. We expect that number to grow; we expect engagements to grow."

While it is, of course, part of his job to know the stats and players in the leagues the NBA deals with, Tatum has a personal interest in the game outside of the US, and he says that his diverse heritage gives him a unique perspective.

Tatum is of Vietnamese, Chinese, and Jamaican heritage, and while he was raised in Brooklyn, New York, he keeps a close personally motivated eye on the growth of the game across the globe.

Tatum explained: "My dad grew up in Kingston, Jamaica. He came to the United States when he was a teenager.

"He flew to Vietnam, served in the US Airforce, met my mother down there - and I was born in Vung Tau, Vietnam - and then he brought us back, so I was raised in a very diverse household, where we had traditional Jamaican customs and traditional Vietnamese customs as well.

"So, I think at a very early age, I was exposed to this global culture. Where I grew up in New York City, it's the melting pot of the world. Even in New York, I had the opportunity to meet lots of different people.

"So I think it's just a natural progression that I'm now in this position where I'm travelling the world on behalf of the NBA, meeting new people and growing the game of basketball around the world.

"It's hard to know if it's a coincidence, but I do believe that things happen for a reason and there's no doubt that the environment that I grew up in very much has a lot to do with my perspective of the world and how I view the world."

The BAL continues in Dakar till March 21, and then moves to Cairo for the Nile Conference at the end of April. The playoffs and final will be in Kigali, Rwanda, from May 21-27.

The BAL airs on ESPN's channels in Africa. View the schedule and scores here.