Basketball gives youth a sporting life chance
The Bafokeng had identified five sporting codes they felt could make a positive impact on their kingdom's youngsters, their biggest investment being in football with the construction of the 2010 Fifa World Cup host venue, the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace, and their investment in the Platinum Stars Premier Soccer League (PSL) franchise.
Basketball was not one of the sports initially identified.
Molotlegi was not to be deterred, though. When your dreams are big, you need big partners and they don’t come literally or figuratively any bigger than the National Basketball Association (NBA).
It was the trusted George Khunou, a member of the Bafokeng’s influential Supreme Council and a key figure in developing Royal Bafokeng Sports, who was tasked with making this seeming basketball pipe dream a reality.
“When we first started engaging the NBA, their contracts were so laborious, we needed to find someone who understood American. And at first our people couldn't quite figure out the difference between netball and basketball,” Khunou recalls of those early days.
NBA Africa vice-president, Amadou Gallo Fall, said Molotlegi’s actions were not merely a whim, but were well-thought-out and researched.
“Kgosi Molotlegi flew out to New York and met with the NBA Commissioner at the time, David Stern.
"He took the time to really understand the ethos of the NBA and saw how seriously we approached community building and the massive importance we placed on academics being just as important as athletics.
"When we started we had to go from school to school, convincing young people to play and convincing their teachers and parents to let them.
"They were worried the sport would interfere with their studies, but found that it was quite the contrary, that they would only be allowed to participate if they went to school and participated fully and were successful at their studies,” said Fall.
Former Burkina Faso national team basketballer and NBA Africa’s technical director for basketball development, Franck Traore, was the first coach to introduce the game to Phokeng’s youth in 2011.
“The first time we told the kids about basketball they looked at us and their immediate reaction was ‘what are you guys talking about?’ We had to sell the game to them.
"The kids here, like all kids, love music, fashion and dance - that’s their lifestyle - and that’s exactly what we used to introduce them to the game. We held high-energy roadshows at schools, and started recruiting players and coaches.
"Today, just six years later, we have more than 10000 kids in Phokeng and the greater Rustenburg area playing the game of basketball and extremely passionate about it,” says Traore, who has become a cult figure in Phokeng.
After its launch in May 2011, the Royal Bafokeng Junior NBA Basketball League programme has grown to incorporate 56 basketball teams from 29 schools, with mass participation of close to 12000 participants and 40 Fiba certified coaches in the broader Rustenburg area, with 18 new and refurbished basketball courts now having been built across the five Royal Bafokeng regions.
Over the past six years NBA and WNBA players, legends and coaches have visited the programme and provided mentorship in the fundamental skills and core values of basketball, including teamwork, leadership, fitness and healthy living.
Some of these legends include Africa’s first NBA player, Nigeria’s Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo (DRC), Sam Perkins (US) and current NBA stars such as Luol Deng (South Sudan’s member of the Los Angeles Lakers), Thabo Sefolosha (Swiss star with South African roots at Utah Jazz) and Serge Ibaka (DRC, Toronto Raptors player).
And to show how arguably the most unlikely South African sport story has unfolded sensationally, the recent Junior NBA league finals were held at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.
Thousands of enthusiastic young basketballers, their families, the Royal Family - including the Queen Mother, Memogolo Semane Molotlegi, the king - and what felt like the entire Bafokeng community, gathered to crown the area's champion teams.
“It is overwhelming to see what has happened here. Basketball is the perfect sport to empower these young people, teaching them life skills, respect for themselves and their fellow competitors, awareness of their health and the importance of their education.
"What we have done here shows that sport can tangibly change lives. It shows if we put in place the facilities, discipline and organisation, and we have the full backing of the community, we can achieve anything. I am very proud of the coaches, who have gone to every village to preach the gospel of the sport of basketball and who have worked extremely hard for long hours and under pressure on this project. And I am proud of our children and their families for the whole-hearted way they have embraced this sport.
"What we have done here we are replicating across Africa, in Uganda, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Nigeria,” says Traore.
The programme's pride and joy and the biggest symbol of its success is the slight 18-year-old Ipeleng Nyatlo.
She’s barely 1.5m and looks more 15 than 18, but on the court this point guard’s a terrier. Her interest in basketball started when the NBA first rolled into town, and today through the programme she has an academic and sport scholarship for her Accounting Science studies at Wits University, where she is one of the first team’s star players.
“I believe basketball is about how big you play, not how big you are. Playing with heart is everything.
When the NBA first came to Rustenburg, I didn't know anything about the sport and started it as a hobby. But I was amazed by the culture of the sport and my love for the game grew and grew. I believe sport gives hope, builds character and opens up many doors, as it has done for our community.
"Our growing basketball community has become like a family,” says Nyatlo, who has never known her father and lost her mother, Keitshokile, when she was just 10 years old.
She was raised by her grandmother Monica, who died three years ago, and her grandfather Johannes, who died just three months ago.
“Through everything that has happened in my life, I still know that I am blessed.
"My name Ipeleng means ‘to be proud’ and I hope I am living up to my name and making my family proud. All of my successes are a consolation and a hope for a better life.
"The sport of basketball is developing leaders in this community and making it better.
"I would not have made it to Wits if it were not for this programme, which places as much emphasis on education as it does on sport. I would like to play basketball professionally one day, but also want to apply myself to my studies and I am equally committed to both.
"As soon as I can, I would like to come back to Phokeng and contribute to my community,” says Nyatlo.
The phrase "sport keeps kids off the streets", takes on new meaning when you see how tightly 15-year-old Bonolo Mekgoe hugs his mom Lerato, and the pride and emotion on her face moments after her son’s just represented Kitsong in the Junior NBA finals.
“Basketball has improved his behaviour. He is a good kid, his marks are good and he’s got real determination. Everything he needs to play this sport, I will give him, I am there for him,” says mom, still holding tightly on to her son.
“Basketball is my life, I literally live, breathe and eat basketball. It’s kept me off the streets, away from the gangs and drugs that could destroy my future. Thanks to basketball and me being part of all this, I feel my future will be a great success,” says Bonolo.
For Khunou, the programme has exceeded the Bafokeng’s wildest imagination. “The impact it has made in this community is amazing. We eventually found the sport that grabs the imagination of our youth. In the NBA we have found partners who really understand what it takes to develop our community.
"We are not doing this only for the Royal Bafokeng, but for the whole country. We must use the Bafokeng as a springboard and government must come and work with us and implement the principles of what has been done here in all communities.
"It is something the country can see has been piloted and is working,” said Khunou.
For Fall, who was sent by the NBA to Joburg in 2010 as a one-man band to grow the sport of basketball in Africa, what has been achieved with the Bafokeng community is “beyond exciting”.
“Every year it is getting bigger and bigger in rapid fashion. This has been a blueprint which has been rolled out in 12 Junior NBA leagues across Africa. We are excited to build on what we have achieved over the last seven years, but a lot of work is still to be done,” says Fall.
And can this small corner of Phokeng in the north west of South Africa one day see one of its own stepping on to the court for a team in the NBA? And what will that moment mean?
“Nothing is impossible when you have the passion and determination these kids have,” says Fall, adding “for them playing in this tournament is just as big as playing in the NBA finals. When you create that enabling environment, the sky is the limit".
"With the passion I see here, that day when one of these kids plays in the NBA is going to come for sure.”