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Cele talks being a role model and starring as a sixth-man for Tigers

IN the final game of the Road To BAL Elite 16 Division East between the Cape Town Tigers and City Oilers (Uganda) – won by the Tigers last Sunday – the DJ played a familiar tune synonymous with victory in certain sporting quarters, Nkalakatha by Mandoza.

The popular Kwaito classic marked the national rugby team’s – the Springboks – Rugby World Cup triumph in October.  Now courtesy of the Tigers’ third Basketball Africa League qualification, basketball got to enjoy Mandoza’s timeless banger.

Amidst the music and posing for team photos, Tigers’ star player Samkelo Cele went courtside to catch up with former teammates and friends.

He also took a few minutes to engage with some teenage fans before heading to the changeroom to take more team photos. Once there, they popped open and sprayed celebratory champagne. Whilst the celebrations continued in the changeroom, head coach Florsheim Ngwenya, his assistant Vincent Ntunja, team manager Elvis Ukpong, and other Tigers players sprinted to half-court.

As the changing room emptied, Cele was among the last few to leave. After freshening up, he caught up with The Big Tip Off to discuss his role at the Tigers, the support he got upon returning to South Africa, being a role model to younger players, his Elite 16 experience, and how the Tigers can improve their chances in Season 4 of The BAL.

Samkelo Cele celebrating at the Elite 16
Samkelo Cele has embraced his sixth-man role at the Tigers. Pictures: FIBA

Twenty-five-year-old, Cele was impactful at both ends of the court during BAL season 3 and the recently concluded Elite 16. He positively contributed every time he was on the floor, despite taking the sixth-man role – one he fulfilled at this year’s BAL Season 3.

Prior to joining the team, the former Durban High School (DHS) student met with the coaching staff, who explained their expectation of him. He knew he had a much bigger role to play on the team. And even when he is having a bad game, Cele is still the go-to guy.

The electrifying small forward contributes to the bulk of the scoring in most of the games they play. He intimated that he was not concerned about not getting a starting role.

Cele, a former University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma Drovers player, knows he has to continue doing a good job on the court. 

Playing in an arena where you could hear a pin drop on most days, Cele could not help but notice the cheers from a handful of fans who trickled in to watch the Tigers’ games. Whenever the former All-American made a steal, shot from deep, or even threw it down for an electrifying dunk, it drew cheers from the small crowd.

This energy reminded Cele of his DHS days and made him feel at home. However, this time around, the support was a little different.

“When I played here in high school, I never felt the support and now I see it, I feel it and I am trying to embrace it as best as I possibly can,” said Cele who averaged 23 points and three rebounds per game during the Elite 16.



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He recognized familiar faces and voices from his days at DHS amongst the crowd. One, in particular, was Dali Dzingwa, the general manager of the Basketball National League (BNL). Dzingwa is also his high school best friend’s father.

Cele shared: “Sicelo (Dzingwa) is my best friend and was a teammate in high school. His dad used to be very involved in our games and would talk to us from the sidelines. For the first time in years, when we played the NBA Academy, he called my name from the side and was coaching me again. It felt like high school all over again.”

Cele appreciated the support he received and recognized the impact it had on aspiring basketball players. Reflecting on his journey, he acknowledges the lack of role models for him to follow. Now he is grateful to be in a position where he can inspire and guide the next generation.

“I think that it is good for the kids coming up to see me being one of the main guys on the team. Them being able to interact with me has been cool,” said Cele.

In preparation for the Elite 16 competition, Cele and the Tigers faced a scarcity of scrimmage games, especially at the BAL level. Instead, they only played a few games against local clubs, which they won by a large margin. Although this seemed like a risky strategy, Cele believes it brought the team together.

“There is a saying that you’ve gotta stay ready to get ready, and I feel like all of us were always like that. We just had to adjust on the fly, and the more games we played, the better we became,” said Cele. Despite the lack of high-level competition, Cele doesn’t believe it impacted their readiness for the Elite 16.

The team’s reliance on each other and ability to adapt to different situations helped them bond. It ultimately made them one unit. As Cele put it, “I doubt it affected us, but it did force us to be a team. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but we moved the ball a little more than the previous times.”

Two days before the Elite 16 tournament, the Tigers faced off against the NBA Academy in an exhibition game. The young prospects surprised the Tigers with a win over the South African champions. However, Cele didn’t seem too concerned about the loss. He believes it wasn’t significant as they beat the Academy in their final group game later that week.

Samkelo Cele in action at the Elite 16
Samkelo Cele says winning rebounds will be key if the Tigers are to succeed at next year’s BAL.

According to Cele, “It was just an exhibition game, so we didn’t take it too seriously. We saw how they played in the first game and made the necessary adjustments in the second game (Elite 16), which we won.”

“We treated it as a game against the kids… To help them improve, because they represent the future of our continent.”

The Elite 16 final was a showdown between well-acquainted opponents. The Tigers and Oilers faced each other in last year’s (Elite 16) semi-finals and group stages of BAL Season 3. Having secured their tickets to next year’s BAL, the battle between the two teams was for bragging rights.

“When you play, you always wanna win so the final did matter. You always want to be able to say how many times you beat a team. When they had the chance to beat you – they couldn’t,” said the former Marist College Red Foxes player.

Regarding their victory, Cele recognizes its significance for setting the standard of preparation for the Kalahari Conference in South Africa.

Reflecting on the Tigers’ performance last season, he pointed out the team’s lack of rebounding as a major issue.

“I think that both times we lost, it was due to rebounding. The more we rebound, the better our chances are. I feel like we can play against any team on the continent,” said Cele.

Cele recalls the experience of playing against Stade Malien, who eliminated the Tigers in the quarter-finals. “I feel like talent-wise, they did not match up to us, but they out-hustled us and won every 50/50 ball. They out-rebounded us on both ends of the floor, so it’s rebounding,” says Cele.

“Most of the games we won were where we were good at rebounding. We give ourselves a chance if we rebound the ball well.”

Cele and the Tigers have ample time to fix their deficiencies and by the time the Kalahari Conference begins next year, they should be ready to roar.


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