Basketball fans are long used to seeing the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting endeavours, so it was no surprise to see Zaire Wade being cheered on by his father at the Basketball Africa League Combine in Paris this past weekend.
The BAL Combine, on Jan. 15 and 16, was held in France as a number of the 30 participants were based in Europe. It brought together players like Zaire from across the world, looking to use the rapidly growing FIBA and NBA-affiliated league to kickstart their careers.
Much of the attention from onlookers was on the younger Wade, who has yet to fulfill his dream of being the pride of an NBA franchise. He was picked 10th in the 2021 NBA G League Draft by Salt Lake City, but waived in March 2022 after suffering a season-ending knee injury.
However, with the resilience he showed since, and at the Combine, he made Dwyane beyond proud.
The Miami Heat legend told ESPN: “I’m very proud of him, because it’s easy to give up when you’re on this journey, and a lot of doors have been shut, and you’ve been told ‘No, you’re not good enough.’
“It was easy for him to quit, but this kid had doubled down on himself, and I love that as a father. It shows me about his character, so I’m proud of him.
“He hasn’t played in  months. He had to get healthy first, and then he’s been training – he’s got his trainer, Corey [Smith], here. He’s been just grinding, and it’s hard to grind not knowing where you’ll end up.
“I tell him all the time, there are people who point fingers, but this is another opportunity for him to showcase not just his talent, but his professionalism, his growth.”
While there are no requirements for the 12 BAL teams to pick players from the Combine, it seems likely that a number of the stand-outs at the Paris showcase will make their way to the tournament proper.
The first leg, the Sahara Conference in Dakar, Senegal, will start on March 11, followed by the Nile Conference in Cairo a month later and the Finals in Rwanda in May.
Whether Zaire will be part of one of the teams remains to be seen, but BAL President Amadou Gallo Fall says basketball royalty’s attention on the league shows how far it has come as it enters its third season.
“I think it’s always great to be desired,” Fall says. “We have put a lot of effort and energy into making sure we are a credible product overall, and make the league a destination for talent all around the world.
“I was impressed with the young man [Zaire], his approach, very unselfish, someone who was interested in making others look good, a great passer from what I’ve seen.
“We’ll see [if he’s picked], but we want elite talent in the league and we want good players, with the right attitude and he showed that.”
The BAL has spent two seasons arriving, now it is looking to grow and become a tournament that can attract big names. Fall’s ambitions about what the league can become made its way to Dwyane Wade.
“That was the first conversation I had,” Wade said. “We talked about his vision for the league and that my son could be a part of the early conversation of where this league started and where it ends up, [and] our family wants to be a part of that.”
So, Wade has seen every step of his son’s journey. Next, he’s excited to see his son potentially play in the BAL.
“It makes me excited about his potential – once he gets comfortable, once he gets put in a system, once he gets coached, once he’s with teammates he knows, then oh my god,” Wade added.
“Then we’re talking, and you’ll get to see the player Zaire Wade is.”
As for his international ambitions, Zaire hopes to represent the Democratic Republic of Congo and honour the origins of his name. The DRC was known as Zaire from 1971-1997 after gaining independence from Belgium, before reverting back to its original name.
His ambition to represent the DRC is a recent development: “That [intending to play for the DRC] came after wanting to play in BAL actually.
“That would be a huge opportunity, but just to be able to play in BAL, because my biggest thing is you’ve got NBA eyes and you’ve got FIBA eyes. And no other league really gives you that attention from both.
“So me potentially getting a dual citizenship [with DRC] that would really allow me to continue my career, so it’s a good opportunity.”
The Combine is only one aspect of the BAL’s plan to find talent, with the BAL Elevate programme bringing teens from the NBA Academy in Senegal into teams as ‘interns’ of a sort. Last year, the first time the Elevate programme ran, Fall chose the players, but this year they will have a draft system.
Fall hailed the success of the BAL Elevate program, saying: “It was very successful. In fact we’re really doubling down on it.
“Last year, we were on the clock, so things happened very quickly. As a league, we assigned the players to teams based on nationality, but now it is going to be more open.
“There is going to be a draft process – the team who has the first pick will get to pick the player whether they’re from their country or not. But our [league office] team have spent a lot of time providing them information on players, around 15 players from the academy.
“Some of them have been highlighted, but there is also beyond the four or five names that you hear about and read about, the whole roster at the NBA Academy, we are excited about BAL Elevate and season three.”
The BAL airs on ESPN’s channels in Africa, as well as in select territories across the globe.