Words: Matthew Trammell

Photos: Theophilus Mensah


What’s that old game called? Around The World? Theophilus Mensah, a Ghanian photographer, and Bobbito Garcia, the New York basketball legend, first spoke via the Internet, in 2011. Somehow, Bobbito caught wind of Mensah’s on-the-ground documentation of his city’s growing basketball scene. The two connected on Facebook, and soon after, Bobbito was sending the young photographer boxes of kicks to gift young players in the various tournaments sprouting up around his city of Accra.

The story of how the two met across continents, let alone generations, is a testament to the increasing closeness of all subcultures; a sport like basketball can spread into soccer-obsessed territories with just a few key-strokes and thumb swipes. This interconnectivity shines in Theophilus’ pensive, affective photos, which capture the deep, growing love for the sport that Ghanians share.

Here, Theophilus takes us through his decade-long history with photographing basketball, as well as the game’s history and future in West Africa.

A student being introduced before the finals of a university basketball championship in Accra (April 2019)

How did you start taking photos?

I started back in 2010. Six or seven years earlier, I started playing basketball. I was trying to find out as much as I could about the basketball scene in Ghana and in neighboring countries around West Africa.

Especially for Ghana, there was very little information about basketball online. In the process of me not finding the information, I started a blog to write about what I was finding. The only consistent league in Ghana was the Accra Basketball League. I would go there on game days, watch games and write little reports about the games.

After some time, I was like, “These blog posts would look better with photos.” So I started taking pictures. As time went on, I took more photos than I wrote. Next thing I knew, I was more interested in photography. I started teaching myself with online resources like YouTube, and I also talked to other photographers in the Accra art space. I was really interested in documentary photography. I got more interested in photographing the everyday lives of basketball players.

“After some time, I was like, “These blog posts would look better with photos.” So I started taking pictures.”

What was the first camera you used?

[Laughs] It was one of those Canon cyber-shots. I don’t remember the exact model. Even that was a gift from a friend who I played ball with in my neighborhood.

In the U.S., the sport we see most associated with African countries like Ghana, is football or soccer.

Exactly.

How popular is basketball compared to football?

Football is way up there. Football is the only sport in the country that has a national league. There’s been a national league for decades. Nowadays, one could easily say that basketball is the second-fastest growing sport in the country. Basketball is right up there. It used to be football, boxing and then basketball.

The girls team of a Swedru business school in Cape Coast, Ghana, huddled up during a time-out (December 2018)

Why do you think that change is happening?

One of the things that’s affected the popularity of basketball has been its spread on social media and the Internet. People also have more access to entertainment from across Europe and America. Back in the ‘90s and early 2000s, there were occasionally some basketball games on TV. If you were lucky, you’d catch one or two NBA games.

Friends who had parents, family or friends working or living in the U.S. would have them VCR record NBA games. When they flew back, people would bring bags of tapes of NBA games and American TV shows, because there was no access to that at the time. Then came satellite TV, but that was expensive. So very few people had it in their homes.

That’s amazing.

And those tapes used to be passed along within the basketball space, among friends. One tape would go to every household. There would essentially be a queue. It’s like, you’re at the ball court, and someone’s like, “I got next.”

You guys were trading them around.

Exactly. So in terms of why the sport has become more popular, there are also more African basketball players in the NBA now. There was a need to see our guys.

And then, starting in the early 2000s, there was a whole culture of basketball events in December, in Accra. December is like summer for us; there are a lot of basketball events all over the place. There would be a music part attached. So if you were in high school, you couldn’t miss that day or two days of basketball and music. When you’d go back to school after Christmas break, that’s what everyone would talk about. “Were you there? What were you wearing?” You had to be there.

Fans in Porto-Novo, Benin cheering their team on during the United Basketball Africa tournament for U18 players (August 2019)

That’s cool, because I feel like that’s why it’s so popular in the U.S. It’s a part of youth culture. It starts with people at that age.

Of course. It’s been over a decade now, and those people are now grown up. Those games and events still influence their choices of entertainment.

Your photos don’t just capture a certain play, shot or reaction; they really capture the scenery, atmosphere and moments outside of the game, too. How do you pick the moments that make for good photos?

Over time, I became more attached to documentary photography. I studied a lot of photographers who were even not sports photographers. I got really drawn to photographs that are not staged. Everybody knows that during a basketball game, there’s going to be a layup, a dunk and a pass, right? What are the other things around the game that people might miss? It’s the unusual part of the action.

I’m trying to capture the real feel of the game — the atmosphere and how the players themselves were behaving. Was it intense, was it easy? It’s about the mood and trying to communicate more than just the score at the end of the game or who got the nastiest dunk. I want to capture the story of the game, to put it simply.

Coach Romario scribbles out a play during the final game of the United Basketball Africa tournament in Porto-Novo, Benin (August 2019)

Have you noticed anything about the style of play in Accra that’s uniquely representative of the city’s culture?

One of my biggest inspirations is this place in the heart of Accra called Lebanon House. It’s a clubhouse in Tudu that has been a social center for the Lebanese community in Ghana for decades. It’s also the venue for the majority of the Accra Basketball League games. Aside from the official games that happen, Lebanon House has some of the best pick up games in Accra. There are games all week, but the Sunday morning ones are the most exciting. Games start at 7 a.m. and go until the sun is out or players are exhausted.

The vibe out there is like that of a family; everyone is welcome, as long as you can play. No matter your size or style of play, someone’s gonna guard you. You have to earn your points. Our Sunday morning games are tough, almost like a fight. Every point is fought for.

For many years, when people in Ghana thought about how to play basketball, they would likely think about how it’s been played in Tudu. Some people won’t like me saying this, but there was a time when people would say, “If you haven’t played basketball in Tudu, or at Lebanon House, then you haven’t really played.”

I feel like Lebanon House and its basketball culture are a good representation of what Accra is as a city. It’s full of warm, welcoming people, but it’s still a tough place where one has to earn everything.

Players from a university in Kumasi, Ghana before a game (March 2019)

How do you see the game creating opportunities in Ghana?

I’ve got a good friend who’s a coach. I’ve known him since 2010. We were hanging out, and he was like, “Why do we still do this?” I’m not exactly sure why, but I think I’m at a point where I want to document as much information about basketball in Accra, Ghana, West Africa, so that 30 or 50 years down the line, when kids want to know what happened in 2012, they’ll have a reference point.

It’s impossible to ignore everything that happens around basketball. It’s a cool sport. It’s hip-hop. It’s youth culture and an entire lifestyle. It comes with a lot of opportunities in today’s world. Youth players are getting to travel across the continent to play in tournaments during the summer; they get to have experiences that many of them wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for basketball.

Now, there are opportunities to coach and referee at higher levels. There are customs teams, a police team, a fire team and an air force team, too. Kids are getting recruited for jobs in government and other places because they can play well and have the discipline for those jobs. Their lives are forever changed socially and economically because of basketball.