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Neo Mothiba coaching the Tuks basketball team. Photo: Reg Caldecott
Q3 2017

Basketball is scoring at top
schools and universities

Former South African national basketball team captain Neo Mothiba explains to Wilhelm de Swardt and Trudi du Toit why the sport is doing so well in private schools and university leagues, and what can be done to raise the level of play.

Basketball is a resilient sport in South Africa. Despite the best efforts of former national federation members to bring the sport into disrepute, it is thriving in university and schools leagues where the most prestigious sport schools — private and former Model C — compete.

Schools with Saints in their names vie with others that are well-known for their prowess on the rugby field or cricket pitch, to top the league rankings of this sport with its urban inner-city roots.

The South African high school basketball programme is definitely one of the best in Africa, says former South African national basketball team captain Neo Mothiba, who retired this year after being a member of the national team since 2003. He was the longest serving captain of a South African national sports team.

The level of basketball talent at school has improved a lot in the past five years and high schools are starting to offer good basketball players sport scholarships, he says. “We have performed well in the African championships at U16 level and most of the players have been promoted into the senior national teams.”

The local invitational tournaments nowadays attract teams from outside the country, due to the strength of teams that participate.

“But, there is still a big gap from the high school game to playing at a senior level. That is why basketball at university level is so important.”

Mothiba got a basketball scholarship to study mechanical engineer and Sports Management at the Vaal University of Technology, and the strength of the top university teams can be directly related to the number of students on basketball scholarships they have, he says.

The reason why Gauteng universities like Wits, Vaal and the University of Johannesburg have been winning the national championships for the past ten years, is because each of them have a minimum of eight players on full basketball scholarships, says Mothiba. The University of Pretoria, where he coaches, have at most two basketball scholarship players. “Until we can attract players of high calibre we will always be a step behind them.“

Also, for South African basketball to grow successfully, he believes community clubs have to be resurrected in order to have the kids playing more outside of school. He was introduced to basketball as a 14-year old when his brother took him along to a local club. He mainly played community basketball as a teenager because his school — Pretoria Technical High School — at first did not have a basketball programme.

This changed three years later, when his school introduced basketball as sport in 1998. They played in the Pretoria school league and at age 17 Mothiba not only played for the first team, but also became their coach.

He had attended a FIBA coaching programme organised through Basketball South Africa, and has since made a name for himself as much as a coach as a player. He is currently the coach of the Tuks basketball team, Director of Sport at St Mary’s Diocesan Junior School for Girls.

“I have noticed a marked improvement over the last few years in the standard of athletics and gymnastics and I would love to do the same for basketball.

“But, our high school coaches are very inexperienced when it comes to world trends and that disadvantages the less stronger teams that cannot afford to send their staff for FIBA accredited programmes,” he observes.

That is why he passionately believes that for the level of basketball played in South Africa improve, Basketball SA needs to run programmes for players, coaches and umpires in order to get on par with world requirements.

The professional Basketball National League (BNL) also “needs to be successful in order for players to have something to look up to for the future,” he says. “At the moment the BNL is inconsistent, even though it has grown by attracting players from the schools and universities.”

Mothiba was selected as a member of the South African national team after his coach invited him to attend a national team camp in 2003 — but due to the demands of his studies, he initially had to pull out.

He was elected again later that year and played his first game for South Africa against Senegal. “I did not play much, but just to be part of it was special. It certainly motivated me. Another highlight for me was captaining the South African side that competed in the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.”

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