/ 18 October 2023

Shooting hoops: South African basketball’s royal rumbling

Developing the sport in South Africa in the junior category for over a decade, the Royal Bafokeng nation is a growing talent pool (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images),

There’s a golden rule that governs basketball development and skill output in the National Basketball Association’s home country of the US — start them young. The earlier the better. 

Most star players tell similar stories of having a basketball put in their hands as soon as their fine motor skills started to peek through. Three years is not an absurd age to start thinking about developing talent.

In Africa, children are mostly introduced to basketball much later and thus have to play the proverbial game of catch-up. Most of the continent’s biggest talent exports share similar backgrounds of starting to play the game late, helped by almost-too-late scouting and training interventions, and their natural physical prowesses. 

Reigning NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid and 2019 NBA champion Pascal Siakam are contemporary cases in point. 

The NBA’s answer to getting Africa’s youth off the backfoot and onto the frontfoot is their Junior NBA and NBA Academy programmes on the continent. The most successful implementation of this in South Africa is the Royal Bafokeng Jr. NBA Programme in Phokeng, North West. 

Running since 2011, it began in 18 schools in the region teaching young boys and girls the game’s rules and skills as well as other academic and life skill activities beginning at primary school level. It has now grown to 44 schools and developed 116 teams in the monarchy nation. 

These are positive strides in getting South Africa caught up to its continental peers, who feature far more on the global stage of competition. In April, for example, 71 high-schoolers from various countries were selected to participate in the NBA Academy Africa’s first-ever “showcase” in Senegal. South Africa had no representation.

“For us to grow the game and give as many African kids the opportunity to learn the game, develop passion for the game and to play the game going forward it’s important that we get it to them at a young age,” said NBA Africa chief executive Victor Williams. 

“With our Jr. NBA programmes we’re able to get young people introduced to the game from ages six, seven, eight and really plant the seed of understanding basketball and loving basketball that enables them to continue to develop in the game going forward.”

Phokeng’s Jr. NBA programme appears to be the country’s strongest hope of getting on the scoreboard. Over 120 young people have gone on to represent the North West at the national level, with eight representing South Africa internationally and two girls in particular participating in the 2018 and 2019 Jr. NBA Global Championships. 

Additionally, two alumni participants received full university scholarships to study in the US and over 100 went on to study at colleges and universities in South Africa. On the coaching front, Moratiemang Junior Mmoloke, a former coach in the programme, was one of 28 from 17 countries selected for this year’s Africa Coaches Programme, where the African coaches got to join NBA teams’ coaching staffs for their exhibition season in July.

Developing interest in the sport doesn’t happen without community buy-in. 

“We at the NBA helped institute it but now it’s run completely by the community — it really resonates in terms of the power of basketball to excite a community,” Williams said.

For the finals in Phokeng on 30 September, at least 5 000 people gathered in the blazing heat to watch U14, U16 and U18 boys and girls compete for their respective championships and musical performances after the games. It’s an encouraging basketball sight in an area most famous for being the home of the now-defunct Platinum Stars FC.