Cele chose education route over going pro early

Tigers will require more from Cele in bid to qualify for Kigali

From the time South Africa’s Samkelo Cele caught the basketball bug, he saw the sport as a gateway for him to turn his big dreams into reality.

KwaZulu-Natal-born Cele, who followed in the footsteps of a handful of talented South African hoopers that had their game nurtured in the United States, has returned home after a productive time in college across the Atlantic.

The swingman is now in the professional ranks and signed for two-time South African national champions Cape Town Tigers for their Basketball Africa League Nile (BAL) Conference campaign underway in Cairo, Egypt. Before speaking on the BAL, Cele shared how he fell in love with the sport.

He explained that while channel surfing, he stumbled on a Los Angeles Lakers game featuring the NBA franchise’s late legend Kobe Bryant.

“I was scrolling through TV channels and caught a Lakers game around late 2010 going to 2011. I think Kobe was playing in it. After that, I asked around my neighbourhood about basketball teams I could join. The Clan was my first team and I have never looked back since that time,” said Cele, speaking to The Big Tip Off last Friday.

Samkelo Cele
Samkelo Cele has always dreamt of playing basketball in the United States. Picture: Supplied

From that point, Cele also honed his game at Durban High School and local club APN. The Phenomenal Phenoms would be his last stop before heading to America to further his education and playing ambition.

“When I learnt that it was happening, I felt … Finally! It has always been a dream of mine to go and study in the United States. So, when it eventually arrived, I told myself, ‘This is what you wanted and dreamt about, so it’s time to go and be about’,” said Cele.

“It was a life changing moment, and I appreciate the people that helped me get to that point.”

During his time in the United States, Cele began his journey at Bull City Prep Academy (2018) in North Carolina. In the 2020-2021 season, he moved on to junior college, where he played for the Southern Jaguars in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Cele says the adjustment to his new environment was challenging, but on the court, it took one game for him to find his feet.

“The hardest part was leaving my family behind and going to a new country. The US was different to what I am accustomed to in terms of lifestyle and basketball. It was hard because I also did not see my parents for a couple of years. I settled, but I still experience difficult moments,” said Cele.


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He also reflected on his first playing experience: “One of my best memories was my first good game. Before that, I did not perform to my standard. I would say I was average. In my second game, I was really good. That is when I put my name on the map. That was in North Carolina. It was one of my fondest memories.”

The following season (2021-2022), he had a stint with NCAA Division One college, Marist Red Foxes, the Alma Mater of his Tigers captain Pieter Prinsloo. Cele would eventually suit up for the NAIA team, University of Science and Arts Oklahoma Drovers. During the spell with the Drovers, he graduated with Business Administration and Sociology degrees.

The 6ft6 Cele says he could have gone pro earlier, but he felt it paramount to complete his studies as it was a part of his plan when he left South Africa.

“That was the most important thing, because I used basketball as tool to create a better life. If the NCAA did not pan out, I could have just said, ‘forget about school’.  I also had offers from some pro teams. But education is important to me, so that is why I chose to stay an extra year. I also have to look beyond basketball and try to set myself for life.”

Samkelo Cele understands his role for the Tigers.

While he achieved success in the classroom, Cele’s talents on the court also saw him receive Third Team All-American honours with the Drovers, something he was proud to have achieved in his college career.

“Honestly, whatever awards or accolades you get … You appreciate them because they recognise you, but that is not what I play for … To be an All-American, ” said Cele. “You play to the best of your ability and put your best foot forward. It’s all the hard work I put in, and it was a great honour to receive that accolade.

“My coach at the team helped me to be in that position. He told me early in the season where he saw me, and funny enough, it came to fruition.”

On his journey with the Tigers at the BAL Nile Conference, Cele has been impactful for the team, coming off the bench. His 11 points and five rebounds helped the Tigers earn an opening 75-68 win against Guinea’s Seydou Legacy Athletique Club (SLAC).

“When I arrived at the Tigers, coach (Rasheed) Hazzard explained his plans and how I fit into them. So, the best way to respond was to trust, accept and be the best off the bench guy possible,” said Cele, reflecting on his role. “It was exciting because it was my first professional game, and I look forward to more. I am a tenacious player. I will do what it takes to get the job done. If I am needed to score or defend. I’ll do those things. Wherever the coach puts me, I’ll try to get the job done.”

The Tigers will need more from Cele to secure a playoff spot in Kigali, Rwanda. After their opening victory over SLAC, they have suffered three consecutive losses. Defeats to Petro de Luanda, Nile Conference hosts Al Ahly and Ferroviario da Beira have made things tricky for the Tigers. The Cape side still occupy the fourth spot in their Conference, but they cannot afford a slip-up against an 0-3 City Oilers team in their final game on Saturday.

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4 thoughts on “Cele chose education route over going pro early”

  1. Awesome to see that a DHS Alum is going places. As a DHS Old Boy basketball player this is great news

    The fact that pro basketball in South Africa is growing after the disastrous attempt in the late 80’s and early 90’s is also great news

    We now need TV coverage.

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