Bangui lose second head coach as BAL campaign gets off to rocky start

Egypt's Seif Hendawy explains why he signed for Loyola (1:21)

Al Ahly and Egypt forward Seif Hendawy recently signed with Chicago's Loyola University, after impressing at the BAL and G League, and says he felt a kinship with head coach Drew Valentine. (1:21)

Bangui SC have arrived at the Basketball Africa League (BAL) Nile Conference in Cairo under a cloud, with late payments playing a role in last minute changes to their roster, and the departures of back-to-back head coaches, Liz Mills and Justin Serresse.

Five and a half months since the Central African Republic (CAR) champions completed an African Cinderella story by qualifying for the BAL as West Division champions in Yaoundé, club president Cyrille Damango has acknowledged that not all of the players and coaches that pulled off the historic feat had been fully paid, but said a resolution was on the horizon this month.

Bangui's most recent coach, Serresse, was subsequently eventually paid after relations broke down between he and Damango and they went their separate ways, but Mills told ESPN she and her players from the FIBA-administered Road to BAL were still awaiting the overdue funds.

Mills, to date the only woman to be a head coach in the BAL, told ESPN: "Working with the coaching staff and the players for the 2023 Road to BAL was an incredibly positive and rewarding experience.

"We made history together by qualifying the team for the first time to BAL and winning the 2023 Road to BAL Western Conference Title. Unfortunately, off-court issues led me to not re-sign with the team for the 2024 BAL season.

"Five months later, I am yet to receive my salary and bonus for the second round of Road to BAL. Our players - imports and locals - have also not been paid for this round. As a head coach, it is important that I stand up for the coaching staff, support staff and players. I cannot work with a management team that fails to uphold values of integrity, respect, honesty, and accountability."

The team still boasts a strong local core, but foreign players have been chopped and changed amid the financial instability. Former Milwaukee Bucks NBA Summer League small forward Evans Ganapamo has been retained and fellow CAR national team star Thierry Darlan has been signed after a season with G League Ignite, but the team in Cairo is strikingly different from the one that triumphed in Yaoundé.

Bangui - the first ever team from CAR to qualify for the BAL - will be up against Egypt's Al Ahly, Libya's Al Ahly Benghazi and Uganda's City Oilers in the Nile Conference (April 19-27).

The last time they played competitive pan-African basketball, they were coached by Mills, who previously qualified AS Salé and ABC Fighters for the BAL quarter-finals. However, she departed along with assistant coach Jeff Sparrow and players Bijan Johnson, Emmanuel Malou and Alex Higgins-Titsha.

Damango, a former CAR national team player himself, acknowledged that players were owed money, but told ESPN that payments were delayed as a result of issues he has been facing in his business endeavours outside Bangui SC.

He cited a lack of help funding his team and a dearth of basketball facilities in the Central African Republic as reasons why it was difficult to catch up on missed payments. Bangui held their pre-Cairo training camp in Kigali.

"Everything was so fine [before November]. I run this project by myself - I don't have any sponsors, so it's my money I'm trying to collect in different companies [to invest in Bangui]," Damango told ESPN.

"It's very expensive hosting more than 20 people in different countries just for the training camp. It's very huge - this is a big line on my budget. That's why the second window - the Elite 16 - it was a bit tough, because I need to pay all the fees for the organisation... So that's why I have this delay and these issues.

"To be honest, in my business, as well, I have some issues because I am not around," he added, claiming that he had trusted the wrong people, but was in the process of dealing with the consequences.

Damango assured those owed money by Bangui that his financial issues would be resolved by the end of April and payments would be made.

"Some of the players have been paid and I am just working on the second part in the coming days," he said.

"I think everything is going to be alright [at least] by the end of April, because I'm starting to come back [into control of] my financial systems, so everything is going to be alright."

He came close to losing Ganapamo, but managed to convince the 29-year-old to stay on. Ganapamo told ESPN: "I definitely was thinking about leaving.

"But after talking to Cyrille and really understanding the impact that it can have in the growth of basketball in Central African Republic, I made the conclusion that it was bigger than me and even with the obvious difficulties I decided that I wanted to stay on the ship and help this project that I believe in."

As for Mills - Damango said that regardless of financial issues, Bangui did not officially offer her a contract extension after Road to BAL. Mills, for her part, acknowledged there was no official offer, but said that she was spoken to as if she would be retained until she questioned Damango and his management, and ultimately severed ties over unfulfilled promises.

A new leaf had apparently been turned over with the hiring of Serresse as head coach and signings of Malcolm Rhett, Emeka Nwabuzor, Jacoby Spencer Ross and Moses Bol, but amid further payment disputes between Damango and yet another coach and set of players, Serresse was left behind in Kigali this week.

He was ultimately paid, but given that he is no longer head coach, the team has been splintered once again - although Bol and Nwabuzor are still part of it.

Sources told ESPN that apart from Serresse, further departures included Rhett and Ross, as well as assistant coach Cavell Johnson. According to sources, Bangui sought additional cover among the playing personnel in Curtis Hollis and Nyang Wek, who were added to the roster as last minute reinforcements. The other foreign player in the team is DR Congo's Rolly Fula, who was part of Mills' team in qualifiers.

The team will now be coached by Cameroon's François Enyegue, with CAR's Gabin Marida his assistant.

In response to allegations of non-payment, BAL president Amadou Gallo Fall told ESPN: "As independently owned and operated organizations, teams that play in the BAL are responsible for paying player and coach salaries. We are addressing the situation with Bangui Sporting Club and urging them to resolve it as soon as possible."

The NBA organise the BAL together with FIBA, but given that the payment issues date back to a qualification tournament under the control of FIBA, NBA Africa has limited power to resolve the situation under the current regulations.

Mills implored the league's authorities to pull together in order to prevent non-payment of players and coaches from becoming systemic - particularly at FIBA events such as Road to BAL.

She said: "The Road to BAL is a FIBA Africa event, which means that unfortunately, the BAL cannot intervene in issues that arise from the Road to BAL tournaments. FIBA Africa, to my knowledge, have yet to penalise or sanction teams for conduct such as this.

"Hopefully in the future, FIBA Africa and the BAL can look to jointly mediate situations so that we do not see this behaviour by club management continue in the future," she said.

The FIBA website lists one past instance of an award being given to a player in such a case in Africa. In 2016, the Basketball Arbitral Tribunal awarded Moses Sonko €4,000 and ordered Angolan club Recreativo e Desportivo do Libolo to pay 75% of the costs of the arbitration after he initiated proceedings against them for unpaid bonuses.

This predated the inaugural BAL season, which took place in 2021. Players across the world have often bemoaned the cost and speed of securing justice through FIBA courts, which could in part explain why so few rulings have been made involving Africa.

Players from the continent could be affected disproportionately by the administrative burden, as they often cannot afford to burn bridges with employers or wait for courts to make a ruling in their favour. However, the waiting time to secure justice is not unique to Africa.

Last year, in an interview with ESPN, former Cal Golden Bears star Jerome Randle said: "I've lost, for sure, in contracts alone, seven figures just from teams not being professional, not paying players, not caring about contracts. Basically, in Europe, contracts don't mean a thing.

"They sign you and won't pay you and you have to go through FIBA and FIBA will take two or three years to get your money. It's a situation that's tough to deal with but what can you do?"

Bangui will tip off their first ever campaign against Al Ahly Benghazi - who they beat to secure qualification for the BAL in November - in their first Nile Conference match at Cairo's Hassan Moustafa Sports Hall on April 19.