Hoops 4 Hope trying to boost basketball in South Africa
CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Shouts of "Hey, coach," follow Lucky Mfundisi as he walks under the streetlights on the dusty streets of Khayelitsha, the sprawling township where so many of Cape Town's poorest live and struggle to find work.
To many of the young boys who run along behind him, Mfundisi is a role model, and perhaps even a symbol of hope. Part of a program called Hoops 4 Hope, Mfundisi, 27, teaches children raised on soccer, rugby and cricket the still-exotic game of basketball, and its promise of a life beyond the crowded warrens of tin shacks that make up their neighborhood.
"For kids to get exposure to basketball it needs us," he said, a bright smile spread across his face. "We love basketball and basketball ... is getting big because we're giving it a shot."
Mfundisi and others in Hoops 4 Hope teach more than just dribbling, passing and the rolling pick. The program coaches boys and girls in the skills it takes to survive growing up in South Africa - leadership training, gender understanding, increasing HIV awareness and coping mechanisms to deal with crime and violence in their neighborhoods.
Despite its exploding popularity in China and Europe, basketball here still lags far behind South Africa's three main sports and is even less popular than the game of netball, a sport very similar to basketball that is played widely in Africa.
Hoops 4 Hope is one of several basketball-oriented programs in sports-loving South Africa aimed at introducing the game to children, as well as keeping them off the streets and away from the troubles that might await them there. But neither quest has been all that easy.
"We're doing some service to the kid who can't play rugby, can't play cricket, can't play netball and all the other sports," says Thierry Kita, who played basketball growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then professionally in South Africa. Now he runs Hoops 4 Hope South Africa with Mark Crandall, an American who learned his basketball as a kid on Long Island.
"They want to be playing basketball first, because it's cool. People who play basketball here think it's a trend because it's linked to hip hop, it's fashion, and it's linked to the USA," Kita said.
Indeed, the National Basketball Association in the U.S. has already taken its first tentative steps into South Africa. In May of 2010, just before the FIFA World Cup drew the attention of the world's billion soccer fans to South Africa, the NBA opened an office in Johannesburg in hopes of finding the league's next generation of foreign basketball stars.
Heading the NBA's effort here is Amadou Gallo Fall, who was executive director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs for the Dallas Mavericks for 12 years. He acknowledges that his task won't be an easy one.
South Africa lacks decent basketball courts, television exposure and professional leagues. Its last professional league folded in 1996, just as it was beginning to gain a foothold. But basketball's struggle here dates back even further than that. During the apartheid era of strict racial segregation, basketball was seen as a white person's sport.
"It is important that we get something going," Fall said. "It just needs a vision with new energy and new blood."
Fall says his enthusiasm is based on more than just hope.
"When we came for the past eight or nine years for programs every year, we noticed a growing interest," he said.
Part of the uphill battle Fall faces is simply finding a place for basketball in the poor townships.
One of the townships in which Hoops 4 Hope is active is Gugulethu. There, children, some without shoes, stare through the bars of a tall fence that surrounds what passes for a basketball court - a green slab of cracked and broken concrete anchored by two poles at either end. The brightly colored backboards have no nets hanging from the rims and just a few wooden bleachers line the courts.
"The kids are going to come whether they have sneakers or not," said Crandall, the American who runs Hoops 4 Hope with Thierry Kita. Their organization has built some 40 basketball courts in South Africa.
"Basketball is a nice sport because it requires little space," Crandall said. "But it's not part of the culture here."
While Crandall and Kita's program can build courts, there is one thing it can't create - a professional basketball hero.
Unlike Sudan and the Congo, where children aspire to be like former NBA stars Manute Bol and Dikembe Mutombo, the children of South Africa have no such hero.
The NBA has 84 international players this season, representing 40 countries and territories. But there are only seven from Africa, and none from South Africa.
Even at the college level few South Africans have the opportunity to succeed.
Some of the country's premier universities, the University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, and University of Johannesburg, feature the sport, but making it that far is difficult.
A path out of the townships
One South African who is getting some attention at the collegiate level in the U.S. is Tshilidzi 'Chili' Nephawe, a freshman who attended Mphaphuli High School in Limpopo, and is now a center for New Mexico State University. He started 17 of the Aggies' 33 games last season and averaged 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Nephawe didn't play basketball until he was in his teens and was discovered by the NBA's Basketball without Borders program. The weeklong camp for the best basketball players on the continent, led by NBA coaches and players, helped Nephawe earn a scholarship to play basketball at the Stoneridge Preparatory School in Simi Valley, Calif.
Another of the country's top prospects, 16-year-old Henry Williams, fell in love with the game by watching a VHS of the 2004 NBA Finals. He learned the rules by playing basketball-themed video games with his older brothers.
Like Nephawe, Williams had to leave South Africa to get advanced-level coaching and face the kind of competition he needs to become a star player.
Now playing basketball on scholarship at a high school in British Columbia, Canada, Williams is an example of how a motivated youngster can use his talents to find a way out of the townships. Vito Pasquale, his high school coach in Canada, calls Williams "one of the hardest working players we've had."
Williams was raised in Mitchell's Plain, a township in an area known as Cape Flats, which was established by the apartheid government as a place where non-whites would live.
He showed natural ability for the sport when he dunked at the township court as a 14- year-old. "King Henry," as he's known by his friends, earned a spot at the Western Cape Sport School in 8th grade.
Spending weekdays away from his family while attending South Africa's only all-sport boarding school was tough on him but he found comfort in having a place to train away from the gangs and high crime rate of Mitchell's Plain, his brother, Jayson Williams said.
Kita was the person who recommended Williams to attend the Shawnigan Lake School in Canada, mainly because he was a good student. It may be a long shot for the 6-foot-3-inch teen to even make it at the college level in North America, but the opportunity to put South Africa basketball on the map keeps Henry motivated, his brother Jayson said.
"Thousands of people dream of this and he knows this," Jayson said. "He acknowledges this and he's doing the best he can with the circumstance."
The ubuntu factor
There is some South Africa flavor in the NBA. It's not a player or a coach, but a humanitarian idea known as "ubuntu" -- a simple philosophy of life that values the greater good more than the individual success.
Ubuntu was the concept that helped unite the country when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and urged the people to move beyond their past. Fourteen years later and thousands of miles away, it also became the motivating philosophy of the Boston Celtics during their 2008 championship run. The word "ubuntu" was heard loud and clear when the Celtics broke every huddle that season and several players credited the team's success to the South African philosophy.
Kita, who met Celtics' coach Doc Rivers at a Basketball without Borders program, brought ubuntu to Boston. Serving as a "guest coach" for the Celtics and teaching the players about the South African way of life was Kita's contribution to the NBA.
"As soon as I got Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to buy into it we were good," Kita recalled with a laugh.
The philosophy became so important to the players that the word ubuntu was engraved on the side of the Celtics' championship rings.
For the people who woke up early in the townships to watch the series and hear the familiar term shouted by NBA stars, it was as if South Africa had already earned a long-awaited spot in the NBA.
Now, the challenge is to teach the next generation of hopefuls the rules of the game and hope that the courts, much like the one that sits behind the fence in Gugulethu, will one day be a place where the NBA's next great talent can say he got his start.
"We want to make sure that our game continues to grow," Fall said. "People are going to come and there will be great basketball and talent is going to continue to emerge from here. The path for development is laid out and in a few years you know, we'll see some great things."