In South Africa, Basketball May Bring People Together

Touring player says athletes see potential in relatively new sport

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFRICA is the third world of international basketball, a continent where facilities are often as primitive as the potential is great. The sleeping giant has begun to awake and Zoli Mtimkulu has a unique perspective on what is happening - at least in one country.

He is a semipro player in South Africa who cut his basketball teeth at a tiny Indiana high school 10 years ago. When not minding a family-owned supermarket in Pretoria, taking college correspondence courses, or overseeing a fitness gym in Soweto, where he plays for a club team. He spoke to the Monitor during the team's recent New England tour.

Speaking of a South African "migration" into basketball from rugby, soccer, and cricket, he observes that people there are "able to see that basketball can bring everybody together, black and white, at all levels and allow them to compete under the same laws, the same rules, without fear of intimidation."

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Next year, his team, the Soweto Liberty's Rhythm of the Nation, will be one of four new entrants in the Premier Basketball League, a six-team semipro South African league.

His team's nine-game tour against college opponents (in which it went 2-7) was the first to the United States by a South African men's team in the post-apartheid era. The trip was arranged by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston and the University of Rhode Island's Institute of International Sport in Kingston.

The tour was a bit of a climate and culture shock.

Mtimkulu says that he had to remind his team to put on a sweatshirt or coat, that sunny days did not mean it was warm outside. US race relations were also an eye-opener. The South Africans were "amazed to see how well white and black people in this country get along," he says. "It is not often that you would come across a white person in South Africa opening a door for a black person," as happened on the US tour. "To some of these guys, it becomes a sign of hope. Now they can say, 'This is where we [South Africans] are going.' "

In Boston, the team got to see the Celtics play in the new FleetCenter and worked out in Northeastern University's spacious practice gym, which has many more baskets than South Africans are used to seeing at one time.

"Basketball courts in South Africa are not quite up to standards yet," Mtimkulu says. "Most are outside, and when the elements of nature take over - the rain and the sun - you sometimes can hardly use them." They are just starting to build indoor courts, he says.

Mtimkulu calls basketball the first sport to be integrated at all levels since apartheid's collapse. School curriculums are scheduled to add basketball next year.

Still, South African basketball is wearing baby sneakers even compared with Angola, which finished 10th in the 12-team 1992 Olympic tournament, and light-years behind the US.

Even so, South Africans are plugged into the luminescent National Basketball Association and can take heart that two of the league's top stars, Houston's Hakeem Olajuwon (now a US citizen) and Denver's Dikembe Mutombo were discovered in Nigeria and Zaire, respectively.

Mtimkulu says that South Africans are familiar with NBA players through edited "Game of the Week" telecasts. The league has also visited South Africa several times, with former Georgetown University centers Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, and Alonzo Mourning representing the NBA most recently.

Mtimkulu's first exposure to the NBA occurred in the mid-1980s when, as a high school student in La Porte, Ind., he partly learned the game by watching players like Magic Johnson and Julius Erving on TV.

Mtimkulu's uncle was a student at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., at the time, so when political turmoil and violence began to engulf South Africa, arrangements were made for Zoli to move to Indiana in 1983. "When I left, some of the worst rioting started," he says.

"I was very bitter when I left," he continues. "Here, I stayed with a family that wasn't bitter toward the government and found whites were trying to make things better. It was a major relief."

He enrolled at La Lumiere, a Roman Catholic high school with about 100 students, and was soon immersed in the state's famous basketball zeal. His fondest memories were of his first dunk and making the varsity team his second year.

The La Lumiere coach, Mtimkulu says, gave him a lot of attention, which helped him quickly learn the fundamentals. He benefitted, too, he says, from learning the value of defense from watching Bobby Knight's well-coached Indiana University teams.

Through example, Mtimkulu has tried to impart that lesson to his younger, more offensive-minded Soweto teammates. Sometimes it's a hard sell, though, given that the 6 ft., 3 in. messenger has a dunk title to his name.

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