Stephane Konate, the LeBron James of African hoops, wants BAL crown with ABC Fighters

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Ivory Coast basketball legend Stéphane Konaté is an 18-time national champion, a continental champion and MVP, and has a 20-year international career behind him, but a Basketball Africa League title with ABC Fighters will be his crowning achievement.

Konate, at 42 one of the oldest players in professional basketball, is highly regarded by his peers at ABC Fighters, some of whom weren't even born when he started his career, and coach Liz Mills speaks of her friend, whom she has known for over a decade, with near-reverence.

The side from Abidjan will face Angolan giants Petro de Luanda on May 21 in the BAL quarterfinals. ABC qualified for the playoffs by the skin of their teeth at the expense of 2022 champions US Monastir, from Dakar's Sahara Conference in March.

Few who watched Mills' side will doubt that they are genuine title contenders, with former Miami Redhawks guard Abdoulaye Harouna an early contender for MVP.

However, the true heartbeat of the team is indisputable. Indeed, even Harouna, a senior player who was born in Niamey, Niger, would likely tell you that it is not him, but Konaté, his own "childhood idol".

"I looked at the team - also, my idol, my childhood idol, Stéphane Konaté, a great leader... This was a good decision for me," he said on his reasons for joining ABC in a press conference.

Konaté began playing for the Ivorian senior national team in 2003 and is not only revered in West Africa, but has experience playing in Egypt, Morocco and Spain.

Konaté told ESPN: "Outside of Ivory Coast, I learned to compete. I gained a lot of experience in knowing the game. The different countries allowed me to know different styles of play.

"I always wanted to come back to Côte d'Ivoire. That is the basis [of my motivation] - to come back to participate in the development of basketball in my country. This is very important."

Since 2014, when his stint with Egypt's Gezira ended, Konaté has largely been playing for ABC, though he had a brief stint with Mali's AS Police during qualifiers for the 2022 BAL. He has not, however, had the chance to reach the NBA, and the affiliated BAL is the closest he will get.

Now, he has a chance to be a part of history. ABC won the FIBA Africa Clubs Champions Cup to become African champions in 2005, with Konaté the tournament MVP in his first year at the club, but the competition then was incomparable to what it is now with the NBA's involvement.

Understandably, Konaté would savour a BAL championship at least slightly more than any past accolades: "I never imagined that, but it's amazing for me to play BAL this year with my team, Fighters. It's very, very good for me. I just take pleasure.

"I'm not planning to win the BAL right now. I'd rather try to win the quarter-finals [first]. Already, playing this competition is something extraordinary for me, but if I ever win the BAL, it will be the biggest achievement of my career."

Like many Ivorians, Konaté started as a footballer, but while brothers Yaya and Kolo Touré, who like him were born in Bouaké, went on to play for some of the biggest clubs in the UEFA Champions League, Konaté's upbringing further north in Korhogo meant that opportunities for him were limited.

He believed that basketball, not football, was the sport that could take him to Abidjan, where he could live a better life: "At the beginning, I started in football, but after that, I thought football was not good for me, because I come from the north of Côte d'Ivoire.

"In the north of Côte d'Ivoire, sport is very poor, so I tried to play basketball to go to Abidjan, where there are many facilities and everything is good."

Konaté's first Ivorian championship title was won with Africa Sports was in 2002, but it is at ABC where he will be most fondly remembered when he finally calls time on his career. There, he has won 17 of his 18 league titles in his home country.

While playing for the national team, Konaté realised that beyond giving himself a viable career, he could use basketball as a tool to uplift his fellow Ivorians, particularly in Korhogo, where he began holding annual basketball camps in October 2021 to create opportunities for young players to get noticed.

"We do this kind of basketball camp to give children the chance to be seen somewhere and hope to be detected," Konaté said. "That's why I do my camp there [in Korhogo], the only basketball activity of the year over there. I rehabilitate the facilities and I donate equipment and a camp."

He praised Los Angeles Lakers center Mo Bamba for honouring his Ivorian roots and giving back to the country by building basketball facilities in Abidjan.

"It was very good of Mo Bamba to give back like that. I encourage anyone who can do to do. This will allow young people to believe in their dreams," Konaté said.

However, Konaté admitted that there is some way to go before his country can start producing homegrown NBA talent. Ivorian international Matt Costello has played for the San Antonio Spurs in 2017-18, but he is Ivorian through naturalisation rather than birth and he only committed to the national team in 2021, years after his brief NBA spell had ended.

"It's difficult today in Côte d'Ivoire to grow up here and hope to play one day in the NBA. Here, we do not yet have the right process. It's clearly easier to be in the USA to have more chance to play in the NBA," Konaté said.

With the BAL putting a spotlight on African players, giving rise to college offers and Summer League chances, Konate will hope his mentorship will see a few young Ivorians reach the heights he dreamed of.

The BAL airs on ESPN's channels in Africa. The playoffs and final are in Kigali from May 20 to 27.