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Ben Uzoh’s Cape Tigers have a chip on their shoulders


South Africa is not a nation traditionally associated with basketball, but after two years of existence the American-owned Cape Town Tigers are well on their way to qualifying for the Basketball Africa League. [BAL].

However, they must first capitalize on a strong start and clear the hurdle of qualifying for the 2022 season on the first try, entering the Elite 16 round starting on December 7.

Raphael Edwards, an accomplished trainer, is a co-owner and the most public face of the organization. He told ESPN that his list of former clients includes Brandon Ingram, Allen Houston, Ty Lawson, Elton Brand and Jerry Stackhouse.

However, the players in Edwards’ custody with the Tigers range from former NBA star and Nigerian international Ben Uzoh, whose career peaked with a triple double in 2012 for the Toronto Raptors against the New Jersey Nets. , to locals such as Lebohang Mofokeng, who didn’t play basketball until after high school.

There is, however, a common thread between the couple and several other Tigers staff. The franchise is full of competitors who fought through various struggles to reach the climax of the second edition of BAL.

In the case of Mofokeng, a late bloomer, he had to catch up before outperforming his more experienced peers. Uzoh, meanwhile, considered quitting basketball after his NBA career ended and was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). However, he persevered and performed for almost a decade since.

Power forward Billy Preston was cut off by the Cleveland Cavaliers before getting top playing time, while shooter Jared Harrington had to postpone his own NBA dream when he was not drafted in 2019 Both were among the Tigers’ best players in the first round of BAL qualifying.

“I really wanted people to have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove – that has a little edge for them,” said Edwards, who himself saw his NBA dream crumble, in part because from a lockout in 1998/99 and, by his own admission, due to his temperamental lifestyle in his youth.

“In doing this, I realized that I’m still learning that you get a lot of other things with it – the egos involved in it, the attitudes, the personalities. It’s up to me to really try to integrate them and to freeze them, while remaining evolving as a man, as a leader myself.

“These guys are from completely different worlds. I also come from a different world, so sometimes things [get lost in] translation, where I’m like, “Oh, you should know you can trust me. “

“These guys are like, where I’m from, we can’t. ‘ It continues to bridge a gap. I preach to guys, although we’re very different and always learning from each other – no one is perfect – let’s just start with a base of respect. “

Uzoh agreed with the advice, confirming to ESPN that there were big egos at the Cape Tigers table, but said they were working together for the benefit of the team.

“You have guys with bullets on their shoulders and it shows up in different ways that are more beneficial than harmful. That’s all you can hope for if you keep bottling this and pushing forward. Hopefully the leadership’s collective vision manifests as they hoped, ”Uzoh said.

In a sense, Cape Town is the perfect city for the merging of very different worlds. While many Tigers players live in quaint suburbs and towns in and near the town itself, the organization is based in Gugulethu, a commune established during apartheid due to overpopulation of Langa, the only black residential area in the city at the time.

Vincent Ntunja, their assistant coach, is himself from Gugulethu, and he told ESPN: “We represent Gugulethu and this is our home base. We train in Lotus River – this is in Grassy Park. [a lower-middle income area]. “

Edwards, who said the community had welcomed the team with open arms, added: “Although we are a professional club, we don’t want to stray from the roots and foundation of Cape Town – these are the centers – cities and the Cape Flats. “

The Tigers were founded in 2019, shortly before COVID-19 hit the world. They took a hit when South Africa entered a hard lockdown in March 2020, but then recovered and beat the Jozi Nuggets in the domestic championship final in September. Uzoh played with 22 points.

He continued to perform exceptionally in the first round of BAL qualifying, with Jared Harrington, Billy Preston, Evans Ganapamo and Pieter Prinsloo also offering clutch performance.

The Tigers qualified for the Elite 16 with three wins in as many games. Here they will face Kurasini Heat (Tanzania), New Star (Burundi) and Matero Magic (Zambia) in Group H1.

A place in the top two would secure a semi-final, then a win in the Group H final or third place in the playoffs would secure the Tigers’ ticket to the BAL.

Having already beaten the Magic 83-77 in the first round of the playoffs, the Tigers’ optimism for the next games in Johannesburg is understandable, although the omicron variant in this region may still prove problematic.

Harrington, 24, told ESPN: “I feel like we’re definitely ready [to take on Africa’s best teams at the BAL]. The more we are together, the more the chemistry [there is and] the more we freeze – we look better and better every day.

“We train twice a day and I love the effort of our team and the chemistry of our team. The fact that we have this drive to improve every day – a lot of teams really don’t have that, so I am really proud of our efforts and expect a lot of great things. “

Edwards agreed on the Tigers’ prospects to equal Africa’s biggest teams, although Uzoh, who finished ninth with the Rivers Hoopers in 2021, was more cautious.

He said: “I think only time will tell. I think we just keep reducing and controlling what we control which is our approach, our mindset and how hard we work. .

“I don’t see why, but obviously every team is going to reorganize itself. They are going to want to be better than they were the year before, just like every business wants to have more profit and more revenue than it does. ‘had it the year before, so we’re just taking it one day at a time. “

The Tigers are set to play their Elite 16 games between December 6 and 11 as they look to secure their spot among Africa’s top 12 teams in the continent’s premier club competition.