CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Shouts of "Hey, coach!" follow Lucky Mfundisi as he walks under the lights on the dusty streets of Khayelitsha, the sprawling township where hundreds of thousands of Cape Town's poorest live and struggle to find work.
To many of the young boys who run along behind him, Mfundisi is a role model, and perhaps even a symbol of hope. Mfundisi, 27, teaches children raised on soccer, rugby and cricket the still-exotic game of basketball, and the tantalizing prospect of a life beyond the crowded warrens of tin shacks that form their neighborhoods.
"For kids to get exposure to basketball it needs us," Mfundisi said, a bright smile spread across his face. "We love basketball and basketball...is getting big because we're giving it a shot."
Mfundisi and others who work with a program called Hoops 4 Hope teach more than just dribbling, passing and the rolling pick. The program coaches boys and girls in the skills it takes to survive growing up in rough-and-tumble South Africa: leadership training, gender relations, HIV awareness and ways to cope with crime and violence in their neighborhoods.
Hoops 4 Hope is one of several basketball-oriented programs in sports-loving South Africa aimed at introducing the game to children, as well as keeping them off the streets and away from the troubles that might await them there. But neither quest has been easy.
Despite its exploding popularity in China and Europe, basketball here still lags far behind South Africa's three main sports and is even less popular than netball, a sport similar to basketball that's played widely in Africa.
"We're doing some service to the kid who can't play rugby, can't play cricket, can't play netball and all the other sports," says Thierry Kita, who played basketball growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then professionally in South Africa. Now he runs Hoops 4 Hope South Africa with Mark Crandall, an American who learned his basketball as a kid on Long Island.
"They want to be playing basketball first, because it's cool. People who play basketball here think it's a trend because it's linked to hip-hop, it's fashion, and it's linked to the U.S.A.," Kita said.
The National Basketball Association, which last season had 84 international players representing 40 countries and territories but none from South Africa, opened its first office here in May 2010. It coincided with the FIFA World Cup, which drew the attention of the world's billion soccer fans to South Africa.
Heading the NBA's office in Johannesburg is Amadou Gallo Fall, who was executive director of player personnel and vice president of international affairs for the Dallas Mavericks for 12 years. He acknowledges that his task won't be an easy one.
South Africa lacks decent basketball courts, television exposure and professional leagues. Its last professional league folded in 1996, just as it was beginning to gain a foothold. During the apartheid era of strict racial segregation, basketball was seen as a white person's sport.
Part of the battle is simply finding a place for basketball in the poor townships. Children in the township of Gugulethu, some without shoes, stare through the bars of a tall fence that surrounds what passes for a basketball court: a green slab of cracked and broken concrete anchored by two poles at either end. The brightly colored backboards have no nets hanging from the rims and just a few wooden bleachers line the courts.
"The kids are going to come whether they have sneakers or not," said Crandall, the American. Their organization has built some 40 basketball courts in South Africa.
"Basketball is a nice sport because it requires little space," Crandall said. "But it's not part of the culture here."
One South African who is getting some attention at the U.S. collegiate level is Tshilidzi "Chili" Nephawe, who attended Mphaphuli High School in Limpopo, and now plays center for New Mexico State University. He started 17 of the Aggies' 33 games last season and averaged 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game.
Nephawe didn't play basketball until he was in his teens and was discovered by the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program, a weeklong camp for the best basketball players on the continent led by NBA coaches and players.
One of the country's top prospects, 16-year-old Henry Williams, fell in love with the game by watching a VHS tape of the 2004 NBA Finals. He learned the rules by playing basketball-themed video games with his older brothers.
He now plays on scholarship at a high school in British Columbia, Canada, where his coach Vito Pasquale, calls him "one of the hardest working players we've had."
Williams was raised in Mitchell's Plain, a township in an area known as Cape Flats, which was established by the apartheid government as a home for non-whites. "King Henry," as he's dubbed, showed natural ability when he dunked at the township court as a 14-year-old and earned a spot at the Western Cape Sport School in 8th grade.
Spending weekdays away from his family while attending South Africa's only all-sports boarding school was tough on him, but he found comfort in having a place to train away from the gangs and high crime rate of Mitchell's Plain, said his brother, Jayson.
Kita recommended Williams to the Shawnigan Lake School in Canada, mainly because he was a good student. It may be a long shot for the 6-foot-3- teen to make it at the college level in North America, but the opportunity to put South Africa basketball on the map keeps Henry motivated, his brother said.
"Thousands of people dream of this, and he knows this," Jayson said. "He acknowledges this and he's doing the best he can with the circumstance."
(Snyder, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011