Few NBA careers have ended under more unusual circumstances than Ian Mahinmi’s. His last game was on Feb. 2020 and weeks later the entire league shut down due to the coronavirus. He did not play in the NBA’s playoff bubble that summer. When he laced them up for his last professional game, there wasn’t an inkling it would be his ride off into the sunset.
After the Wizards’ time in the bubble came to a close, as did the four-year contract he signed to join them in free agency in 2016, it left him at a crossroads with a 12-year NBA career in the books and his whole life ahead of him.
It was shortly thereafter that Mahinmi was approached with an investment opportunity in NBA Africa. Mahinmi joined as a minority owner, attaching his name to a group that includes strategic partners and investors like former President Barack Obama, actor Forest Whitaker and former NBA players Dikembe Mutombo, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng.
Mahinmi, who has roots in the West African country of Benin, has since been directly involved in the sport’s expansion across the continent. That includes an appearance at the tip-off of the Basketball Africa League’s (BAL) third season this week in Senegal.
“This is definitely, for me, the next chapter. I feel like everything I’ve done has led me to this,” Mahinmi told NBC Sports Washington during a phone conversation from Dakar.
The BAL features 12 teams from 12 different countries split between two conferences, the Nile and Sahara. The teams include players with G-League and Division 1 college basketball experience. They play 38 games over three months in Dakar (Senegal), Cairo (Egypt) and Kigali (Rwanda).
The games are available to watch in all 54 African countries and 214 countries in total across the world. There are also 45 games from this NBA season being broadcast in primetime throughout the continent on various platforms.
NBA Africa, which is headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and has additional offices in Senegal, Nigeria and Egypt, also has other initiatives to drive interest in the sport among African youth. Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. participated in a Basketball Without Borders camp in Egypt last summer.
“At the grassroot level, the game is popular now. The game is being played,” Mahinmi said. “And obviously, as you know, basketball is not only the game. It’s the whole lifestyle. The game goes with the music, the music goes with the swag, the clothes, the shoes, the sneakers.”
Mahinmi, who grew up in France, believes the full potential of basketball in Africa has barely been realized. That is despite multiple Hall of Famers hailing from the continent including Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon. Joel Embiid, who is from Cameroon, is a favorite to win this year’s NBA MVP award.
Soccer remains the No. 1 sport across Africa, but Mahinmi believes basketball is well on its way to the mainstream.
“It’s been like a whole ecosystem awakening. For me to be a part of that, it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a matter of time,” he said. “This BAL league has changed the whole landscape of how basketball is viewed on the basketball continent.”
Mahinmi has drawn a sense of gratitude from his involvement with NBA Africa, as he continues to transition away from his professional basketball career. It’s a revitalizing new venture for him after an admittedly disappointing tenure in Washington.
Mahinmi’s four-year, $64 million deal did not work out for the Wizards. He appeared in only 180 games and struggled to provide the impact they signed him for.
Mahinmi points to injuries as a major reason for his performance and suggests they were worse than initially reported.
“My time with the Wizards was very challenging… My first steps as a Wizard, I injured myself. I injured myself in training camp and this was like such a tough start. I felt like from that injury, it was like a ripple effect,” he said.
“That year we had such a good team. I believe we had aspirations of going far. I hurt myself, took a while to come back, then came back and I hurt myself again. I obviously wasn’t healed all the way, trying to come back quickly for the playoffs. I hurt myself again, the same injury. I tore my meniscus twice in my first year. We don’t talk about it a lot, but that trauma of tearing my meniscus twice took me a while to get back to myself. I didn’t feel comfortable until maybe a year-and-a-half after. But a year-and-a-half after, a lot had changed in the Wizards organization. It was tough, it was tough for me. I felt like I gave it my all, but it was just like physically I wasn’t at my best.”
Mahinmi said the Wizards not reaching their potential during those years remains a “regret,” though he is happy he was able to play better during the 2019-20 season and end his career on a personal high note.
Mahinmi is now out of the NBA, but still in basketball. And with NBA Africa’s initiatives, he has a chance to impact the game for many years to come.