Hoop dreams find a home

Basketball: With the help of a hometown company, South African teen-agers get a chance to hone their skills at U.S. summer camps run by NBA players.

August 03, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

Standing tall at a lanky 6 feet 2, he looks like a typical American teen-ager. And from his appreciation of the latest model sneakers, to his baggy gym shorts and the flair with which he dribbles and dunks a basketball, he could represent any town, USA.

"My game is good, but not good enough," said Tsakane Ngobeni, 15, taking a break at the recent camp given by Washington Wizards guard Tim Legler at Annapolis High School. "I wouldn't mind an opportunity to improve my game, an opportunity to learn by coming here."

When Ngobeni speaks of "here," he doesn't necessarily mean this region. The native of Soweto in South Africa is referring to anywhere in the United States. He hopes someone will sponsor him to allow him to come to this country and finish high school.

Ngobeni and two other South African teen-agers -- 15-year-old Tshepo Evans and 16-year-old Simphieve Clifford -- were at Legler's camp through the efforts of the Miles Connection, a South African company that has spon sored trips to summer camps for promising South African basketball players.

The director of the Miles Connection -- in its fourth year -- is Michael Finley, a 30-year-old native of Georgia. After a vacation in South Africa five years ago, he decided to leave his job as an underwriter for a Washington, D.C., insurance company to move to the country. In his years there, he has helped teach basketball in a country where soccer, cricket and rugby are the most popular sports.

This summer the company is sponsoring trips for 12 South African youngsters to visit summer camps headed by Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill, New York Knicks guard Charlie Ward, Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway and Legler. Coke, Nike, Reebok and several South African companies make the opportunities possible.

"What we tell the guys is that they're getting an opportunity to see the United States, learn about basketball and have a good time," Finley said. "In an ideal world, they would come here and go to high school. If you ask them, they all want to come here and play basketball."

An "ideal" situation occurred two years ago when Finley's group sponsored a trip for Thabo Letsebe, who grew up in the South African township of Alexandra -- the native township of outgoing South African president Nelson Mandela. Finley was so impressed with his hunger for basketball that Letsebe was one of five South African youngsters who made the trip to the Chicago camp run by Hardaway.

"[Thabo] was one of the most impressive young men that you wanted to be around," Finley said. "He wanted to play basketball, and I taught him what I knew."

Which was enough for Letsebe to display a strong desire during a one-on-one game with Hardaway. That game was captured by the cameras from the weekly NBA "Inside Stuff" television show, and eventually led to Letsebe coming to the United States as an exchange student and playing at Towson Catholic. Letsebe also was an honor roll student at Towson Catholic, and will play at Goucher College this year. In the two years the program has brought students to the United States, Letsebe is the only one to get an opportunity to go to school here.

"I believe the [summer] camps will make them become better players," said Letsebe, who stayed with the three teen-agers attending Legler's camp. "When I went to Tim Hardaway's camp, it was wonderful. And the guys here now, I can see them going somewhere. I just hope something can happen for them."

And the teen-agers hope as well. For Evans, a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and star forward Kobe Bryant, basketball at his home in the Northern Province of South Africa means sharing time with hundreds of other youngsters on the lone court in the community.

"It's an outdoor court and we have to set up times of the day when certain kids can play -- some will play at 2, the girls might come on and play at 6," said Evans, an 11th-grader back home. "Coming here to Tim's camp, I'm out there trying to play good basketball to show other people we can also play. I'm very confident in my game."

For Clifford, a ninth-grader, coming to Legler's camp was a chance to hone his basketball skills as well as escape the gang violence of his township outside Cape Town.

"There are a lot of gangsters back home, the young people are killing each other and it's scary," Clifford said. "I want to come back here to the States. I don't want the crime. I want to leave it behind."

Finley is hoping he can make that happen.

"We just hope people will see the need and recognize the opportunity to help some people who really want to help themselves," said Finley. "If something comes through, that's great. If someone calls us right now, we'll try our best to get these guys in school at the beginning of the year."

Anyone wishing to help the Miles Connection can reach its director, Michael Finley, via the Internet at: miles_sa@hotmail.com.

Pub Date: 8/03/99

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