NBA courts future hoopsters in S. Africa 3-nation tour takes stars to townships

SOWETO, SOUTH AFRICA — SOWETO, South Africa -- The smile on Christopher Mahamha's 12-year-old face gleamed as brightly as the brand new NBA T-shirt he had just won in a dribbling contest.

The boy was at a loss for words when asked about the players from the National Basketball Association who had come to a college gymnasium in this black township to give a clinic.


"They are big," he finally said.

There was no doubt about that. The NBA delegation winding up a three-nation African tour was topped off by 7-foot-2-inch Dikembe Mutombo of the Denver Nuggets, one of three Africans playing in the league.


Young Mahamha has been playing basketball for two years, making him a rarity in Soweto, where soccer reigns. On every dusty street, groups of boys kick around any spherical object with the same dream-fueled dedication that has their counterparts bouncing balls and shooting baskets in American cities.

The NBA tour, which also included Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld and former NBA players Alex English, Bob McAdoo and Mike Bantom, was part celebration of South Africa's return to the international sporting world and part seed-sowing for a future market for this growing sport.

As in so many countries, the soil was plowed by the U.S. Olympic basketball squad at the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain, that was made up for the first time of top professional players.

"When I was growing up in Zaire, what we mainly knew was European basketball," said Mr. Mutombo. "I heard of a few NBA stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. But it was not until the Dream Team that everybody knew that in America, we are the best, come and follow us.

"I think the NBA is doing a good job with taking the message out now. I think by the year 2000, 2005, everybody will be talking about basketball all over the world."

Mr. Unseld said, "I think they will take to basketball here just like they have in so many parts of the world. Because it's exciting, it's instant and it's relatively inexpensive to play."

It certainly made an instant convert of Kingsley Masilo, young Mahamha's coach, four years ago.

"It was love at first bounce," the 20-year-old Sowetan said. "It's a great game."


The problem is facilities. There are maybe five courts in all of Soweto, a black township near Johannesburg that is home to an estimated 3 million people. The NBA is leaving behind 30 portable baskets and 200 balls that will be shared with several other townships across the country.

"I wish when I walk down the street to see a basketball hoop at every corner in Soweto," said Mr. Masilo. "I want to see the kids playing because maybe that will keep them, like they say, off the street from doing the wrong things."

The NBA delegation toured several townships. What they saw seemed to make as big an impression on them as the one they left on the youngsters they coached.

"It's been an eye-opening experience," Mr. English said. "Alexandra just blows your mind," he said of the crowded township that is cheek by jowl to some of Johannesburg's exclusive white neighborhoods.

"Here are 1 1/2 million people living in squalor," he said. "Right next to them is vacant land where they can't go because it belongs to whites. And across from that are nice suburbs just like you find in the United States."

"It taught us how little we really know," said Mr. Unseld, who first played for the Bullets in Baltimore and still lives in Catonsville. "You've heard about the difference in living conditions between black and white, but you really can't imagine it until you've seen it.


"I don't see how people go to sleep at night in Alexandra when they can see the way whites live right across the road."

For Mr. Unseld, one of the highlights of the trip was a dinner with Nelson Mandela, head of the African National Congress who spent 27 years in prison.

"I just can't believe that he is not bitter," Mr. Unseld said. "If someone had wasted 27 minutes of my time, I am angry. Twenty-seven years? I can't believe it. But you talk to these people and they tell you, we don't want revenge, we want rights."

"This is a beautiful country," said Mr. English. "You can just imagine how the place could be if everybody can live peacefully. This would be one of the most powerful countries in the world."

On the court, Mr. English and his three colleagues taught dribbling and passing techniques, making sure every one of the 200 or so youngsters got a chance to handle the ball.

"They want the basics," said Mr. Unseld who worked mainly with coaches during his two days in South Africa. "So that's what we're giving them."