JOHANNESBURG (FIBA AfroBasket 2017) - South Africa's Tskani Ngobeni may feel that his years with the national team are numbered, but he was huge during their successful FIBA AfroBasket 2017 qualifiers last week in Johannesburg.
Despite trailing for most of the two-game series against Zimbabwe, South Africa came up with two incredible comebacks to secure a 142-137 win on aggregate and qualify for this year's 16-team FIBA Africa flagship event in August (19-30).
Although South Africa have competed at FIBA AfroBasket before, last week's qualifier marked a new chapter in their basketball history.
While South Africa were recipients of wild cards to compete at FIBA AfroBasket 2009 and 2011, this time around, they earned their ticket on the basketball court.
Ngobeni, a two-time FIBA AfroBasket competitor, explained to FIBA.com how they successfully upset Zimbabwe and discussed the impact of South Africa's qualification for the FIBA AfroBasket 2017.
How significant is this AfroBasket qualification for South Africa basketball, and what does it mean for the future of the game in the country?
It’s beyond significance, it shows that basketball is alive and happening in South Africa. It’s not happening at the rate that we would like to - we would like an exponential growth - but I would say that slow motion is better than no motion.
This just shows that we can actually compete and win in our (FIBA Africa) zone. Yes, we have dominant teams like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia, but it shows that at any given moment, any given day we can compete with the teams in our zone.
On this team, only Neo Mothiba and I have played in AfroBasket before [head coach Craig Gilchrist has also played at AfroBasket]. We have been to Africa, we know how the guys compete, we know how physical it is. A lot of guys are gonna have an awakening to this experience, and hopefully, they will come up better basketball players.
You have played at AfroBasket before. Can you elaborate your playoff experience against Zimbabwe? What went through your mind, knowing that, that was a must-win situation?
I have played in several AfroBasket before. I was younger, my body was in shape, and I could compete athletically. What I realise now, is that I am no longer in the physical specimen I was, but my mind, my experience throughout the years is actually helping me playing the game.
I now understand when the guys say: ‘If you knew what you know now with a body that you had at your pick you could have been a very formidable player.'
The series against Zimbabwe was very challenging, physical and mentally, but we played our hearts out. We left all on the floor because, at the end of the day, that’s what we play for. We play the sport that we love to represent the country at the highest level.
Now that South Africa are through, what to expect from your national team at FIBA AfroBasket 2017?
The first step was qualifying, and now that we have qualified the pressure is on our [Basketball] federation to give us dates how we are going to prepare.
What I like about this group of young players is that they are very anxious, and are eager to play. They are eager to learn, they are eager to get better.
There is excitement in the SA [South Africa] national team camp and the whole point of this journey is to give the young boys experience and let them blossom. Let them get a taste of Africa, and how tough and physical the game is.
Take us through that Game 1 against Zimbabwe. South Africa were down by 20, and how did you manage to turn things around?
I had what I call the ‘Mamba mentality’. It was a combination of knowing that you can do things. And, as a senior, I realised that we had to change things. I needed to find a way to make the guys believe in the coaching system. It all started on the defence because defence wins games. All that energy and momentum came from our defence. From that, we got our confidence and we did what we had to do. I said: "fellows, if we don’t qualify, basketball [in South Africa] is done for the next couple of years. For me, it was motivation enough.
At my age (33) this was my last hurrah. 'Leave it out there for your country, play your best, play for the Green and Gold [jersey], and play hard.’
What, if anything, does your national team need to improve in order to go up against some big teams at FIBA AfroBasket this summer?
We have room for improvement. We are a young team. It’s about executing and staying composed. We made a comeback on the first and second games. The difference is when you make mistakes against a team like Angola you are not coming back from a 20-point lead because they know how to keep that lead. When you make a mistake they punish you. Zimbabwe did not punish us as they should have. They should have knocked us out. On their side, thank you for the opportunity.
You have played at AfroBasket before. You have also played a number of qualifiers; you currently play for Duzi Royals in the national league, what keeps you motivated to keep on going?
I actually thought that I had retired from international basketball, but what keeps me going is the routine and the hard work that you put in and you see the results.
The ‘Green and Gold’ [jersey], our country is very proud of its Proteas.
As a kid, I always wanted to be there. Now as one of the captains on the team to actually lead the team on home soil to qualify is something I never thought it would have happened in my lifetime.
What keeps me going is to continue to strive to get better every day. Basketball allows you to express yourself in a way that nothing else does, that’s what keeps me motivated.