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Basketball (And The NBA) Try To Find Fans In South Africa

The night before the NBA exhibition game, two South African teams faced off in Johannesburg. Hoops aren't exactly a huge draw in the soccer-loving country. Attendance was about 1,000.
Don Boroughs for NPR
The night before the NBA exhibition game, two South African teams faced off in Johannesburg. Hoops aren't exactly a huge draw in the soccer-loving country. Attendance was about 1,000.

Motlapule Mofokeng missed his chance to see the biggest professional basketball game ever played in South Africa on Saturday. Tickets sold out in less than an hour for the NBA's All-Star Team Africa vs. Team World game in Johannesburg.

Fortunately, it wasn't the only big game in town. On Friday night the fashion design student at Vaal University of Technology cheered on the Egoli Magic, 7-0, as they battled the only other undefeated team in the Basketball National League (BNL), the Tshwane Suns.

Despite free admission, only a thousand or so fans showed up for the BNL match, but what they lacked in numbers they made up for in passion.

They're also notable for their individuality. Becoming a basketball fan is a counter-cultural choice in soccer-mad South Africa. One soccer match the same weekend filled a 95,000-seat stadium.

The hoop fans are definitely diehard. Some traveled for hours by bus for the BNL showdown. All were there, says Mofokeng, "for the love of the game."

Every time the crowd at Wembley Arena jumped to its feet to celebrate an on-target 3-point shot—the vast majority missed — it was evident that the adults in this audience were taller than the average South African.

"The fans are mostly basketball players at various levels," explains Leslie Nteta, who plays the sport for the University of Pretoria. He was devoted to soccer until his parents sent him to an elite high school whose teams play only cricket, rugby, water polo, and basketball.

Mzimasi Hlanganyana agrees that the route to fandom is through shooting hoops. The 18-year-old has seen a tremendous growth in interest among fellow students since the Saulridge School in the Pretoria township of Atteridgeville took the unusual decision to add basketball as a school sport four years ago.

"This is a blessing today to be able to come to the basketball," he says. "It's a cool sport."

The stories of other fans show that NBA executives are correct in their belief that exposure to the best of the American game will trigger interest. Gordon Thema calls himself "the No. 1 fan" of the Tswane Suns. It all began in 1993 when he first saw basketball on television.

"I fell in love with Michael Jordan, and that's how I fell in love with basketball," he says. Today he coaches the game for a private school.

Mavis Sgudhla, 52, also first felt the lure of the sport from watching the NBA on TV. There was no television in her home when she was growing up, but she sometimes accompanied her mother — a domestic worker — to the house of her white employers. Sgudhla would sit glued to the games while her mother cleaned and ironed.

Today she runs a sporting organization for teens in Soshanguve township, outside of Pretoria. She brought 140 of them for the two-hour bus ride to see the Suns play the Magic. "We want to show them the new sport of basketball," Sgudhla says. "And they love it."

Several fans see evidence that bringing a live NBA game to Africa for the first time has piqued the curiosity of South Africans. "People who knew nothing about basketball are suddenly interested," says Nteta.

Still, it will take a full-court press to make basketball succeed in South Africa. A previous attempt to start a pro league was aborted eight years ago for lack of sponsorship. A few years later, executives of Basketball South Africa were all dismissed under a cloud of suspicion when the organization could not pay its debts.

Courts are in such short supply that every BNL game since the league began in 2013 has been played at Wembley, a 78-year-old, defunct ice rink with capacity for about 3,000 fans. BNL players and coaches all have to keep day jobs to supplement their modest basketball stipends.

An international star from South African could bolster interest — but so far there hasn't been one. The NBA's "Team Africa," captained by Luol Deng — the Miami Heat forward born in what is now South Sudan — is rounded out by players with origins in Senegal, Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Even in the BNL, most teams are led by foreign players. The top scorers in Friday's match were Angolan Jose Salvador for Egoli Magic and the Suns' Larry Jackson, Jr., from Florida.

None of this seemed to bother the Tshwane fans who broke into spontaneous dance amid deafening cheers that lasted for minutes after the final buzzer left them with a 55-50 victory. Such spirit seemed lacking at the NBA game the next day, where two teams featuring NBA players faced off: Team World (American and European NBA players) vs. Team Africa (players who are first or second generation Africans). Team World won, 101-97. The official attendance was 4,331.

The NBA hopes to return. "Stay tuned," said commissioner Adam Silver. "This is an experiment of sorts." The exhibition match, he said, could lead to a preseason game played in Africa and perhaps a regular season game as well.

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Don Boroughs
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